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Wednesday, April 23, 2014


2014 Winter Contest Finalist

by Julie Goodale

As the Arusha traffic falls away, we become a steady stream of safari vehicles, shades of khaki and tan. I have left behind the slopes of Kilimanjaro and my thirty-nine companions, all dressed in red, to head off to my solitary adventure. We drive on roads of red dirt, through vegetation in variations of green, toward our destination. Serengeti. A dream of adventure. A dream of the wild. A dream of Africa.
School uniforms—maroon and white, green, orange and blue— filled with waving arms dot the side of the road. The mothers, and their mothers, flash red, orange, purple, green. Maasai grace by, draped in red and purple. A morning flurry of bee-eaters and sunbirds writ large upon the African landscape.

We were forty on the mountain, plus a hundred porters. Cancer survivors and cancer caregivers. Unlike most of my climbing companions, I have become an old hand at cancer. I am beginning my eleventh year of surviving. They are more recent members of our flock, some less than a year.
I recognized the greenness of their fears and pain. I remember navigating the new landscape of a freshly-scarred body: the clothes that no longer fit, the muscles that no longer move the way we expect, the unrelenting fear that this might be the day cancer comes back. But the scars fade. Like just-picked flowers, the vividness of the color fades with the passage of time. They do not go away, but they are no longer bright red.
My scars are grey. They are the color of weariness—the weariness I sometimes feel after a decade of survival. I cherish the beauty of the colors that fill my life, but of late I feel the pull of the losses.

Kilimanjaro was not my first climb. I started rock climbing years ago with my father. We were on vacation, just father and daughter. He wanted to try climbing. He remembered climbing once as a young man and thought it would be fun. I was afraid, but I would not say no. At first, it made no sense to me: knots, rope that became spaghetti in my hands, the jigsaw puzzle of my body moving over the rock. Then, after two days, a new world appeared in those rocks. The ropes did not bind me; they led me up a path most could not follow. They connected me to a world where body parts became chess pieces on a Precambrian board; where I could look down upon the back of a Red-tailed Hawk soaring below, calling to its mate. Two years later, ropes fluid in my hands, tethering me to my companions, I ventured into the barren, glacial world of high-altitude mountains. We climbed through the Cimmerian hues of pre-dawn, the only sounds the growling of the wind and rhythmic crunching of our crampons on ice. I glanced behind me. The clouds lay like silvered pillows below us. Above in the midnight blue, stars shimmered. The sky was just beginning to lighten to a deep cerulean in the east, silhouetting the crater rim. I turned back into the wind and continued climbing, tears stinging my face in the cold.

The last day with my Kilimanjaro friends is spent visiting schools in Moshi, then an orphanage run by a young Maasai teacher and an expat retired doctor from northern California. It is here that I peer into the eyes of my loss. Brown eyes so dark as to be almost black stare at me as a coffee-colored hand reaches out to grab mine from an aqua gingham dress. Esther is ten, the same age my daughter would have been had cancer not changed my plans.
I had put off having children although I had always wanted them. In college I could more easily imagine myself with a child than married. And I imagined myself with a daughter. A rocky career path and rocky relationships made it easy to put her off. Then it became easier to wait until after the next adventure. There were always exciting things to do first, and there always seemed to be more time.

Through all the adventures, all the relationships, she would whisper to me from the back of my dreams. Softly calling. Finally, it was time; we would try for our child. After just one more adventure.

The Atacama was summoning me to Chile, to Ojo del Salado, the Eye of Salt. I was still in the midst of planning—pouring over maps, estimating how many loads of food and water would be needed while climbing in the driest desert on the planet. But the subtlest change in the topography of my body interrupted the calculations.

The children at the orphanage sing a song about a doctor to the tune of “My Darling Clementine” as they act out a skit for us. Call the doctor. Call the doctor, call the doctor right now. Call the doctor. Call the doctor, call the doctor right now. Doctor’s coming. Doctor’s coming, doctor’s coming right now.

My diagnosis, the first one, was non-invasive breast cancer. Stage zero. Ten hours of surgery would transform my body into a patchwork quilt of scars, but I could still go to the Atacama in January, and I could still have my child.
A week after leaving the hospital my plans were interrupted once again. At my first post-surgery check, my surgeon was on vacation, so I saw her sub—a surgeon, not my surgeon.

This surgeon gingerly removed my bandages, revealing wounds like a map of highways and subsidiary roads leading nowhere. My pathology report was delayed. There was yelling, more delays, more yelling. Finally, the light on the fax machine began to twinkle as it spit out pages. The surgeon, not my surgeon, talked as he read the report. He stared at the floor. His words swirled about my head. Tumors, poor margins, necrosis, lymph nodes, sorry. There would be no climbing in January. This surgeon—a father, picture on his desk of his son rock climbing—asked me if I had children. Well, at least you won’t have to figure out how to explain this to them.

My plastic surgeon came in. He had left his art-filled office with the vases of fresh-cut flowers to check on me here, where battles are fought, where lives are saved and lost, where old magazines piled up and posters hung slightly crooked. He gave me a long, gentle hug.

An oncologist came up to meet me. An oncologist—he was not yet my oncologist. I did not yet feel possessive of him. He was not yet what he would become—the most trusted man in my life. I stared at the buttons on his white shirt as he asked if I had children. At least you won’t have to deal with caring for small kids while going through this.

The fourth day on Kilimanjaro I became sick. It was too early, too low on the mountain to be altitude. It was either food or the flu. I spent much time outside my tent during the night in the rocks, throwing up. Between heaving, I looked out at the lightening illuminating distant clouds. Above me the sky was clear.

While in my first round of chemotherapy, my sister-in-law—then pregnant with her second child, my niece—invited me to accompany her to her ultrasound, knowing that because of my chemo there was a very good chance I would never experience my own baby’s ultrasound. I sat in the exam room with her and my brother. The doctor spread the bluish gel on her belly. I held my breath as we waited for a heartbeat. I sucked it in deeper when the heartbeat wasn’t there. And then it was. The room exhaled. I listened to that heartbeat, to the tiny, rhythmic whoosh. I listened to the breath of my brother and his wife. The room was pulsing and rhythmic. I smiled.

The sound of that heartbeat, from a child who was not mine, rose in my ears. My chest tightened. Salty tears slipped into my mouth, and dripped off my face, leaving dark, expanding circles on my shirt. I took in more breaths because I could no longer get any air, as though the grey blood pressure cuff beside me had wrapped itself around my chest. I fled the exam room—the doctor’s office and my sister-in-law with her unborn daughter. I escaped into the hallway, but still there was no air, the cuff ever inflating. My chest heaved, but my lungs could not supply enough oxygen to my brain. The hallway began to darken and move; I could hear footsteps—rhythmic clicks—echoing down the hall as I reached for support. Still my lungs could not provide the needed oxygen. Until the sobs came. Then, with soft moans, my breathing regulated.

In the mountains, when I was too tired to have any sense of time, I would play mental games with myself to keep moving up the mountain. Walk until your steps fall out of rhythm. Climb to that rock where the raven sits. Don’t think about quitting until you get to that next crevasse. When my will failed even with those games, I would listen to the crunch of my footfalls and count my steps. I’ll just climb eight more steps, then decide if I’ll quit. And then, I had always gone on.

One, two, three, four…That was what ran through my mind as I sat on the side of the bathtub, crying yet again. In the third week of radiation I was too exhausted to continue, too tired to face another morning in a cold room, lying in my awkward plastic mold. Each night for more than a week I had cried, sure that this would be the time that I could not continue. Each night I was sure that in the morning I could not return to the sad, dark room where children lay like corpses, where parents cowered in the hallway, where fear was tattooed on our bodies as they roasted from the inside out. Each night, tears burned my face. Then, each morning, I would decide to go just one more day. One, two, three, four….

I was forbidden to climb during treatment. Instead, I would hike in the hills near my house. The sun would shine through the trees, creating a dappled pattern on the leaf-covered trails. I would stop frequently to catch my breath as I struggled up to the bare rocks atop a ridge, and feel the texture of the sun-warmed stone. I would feel the sun toast my bald head in spite of the cool autumn breeze. I found a small piece of quartz, white with sharp edges tinged in black, which scratched slightly but did not hurt. I liked the way it felt in my hand. I put it in my pocket. I felt happy.

After my initial cancer treatments, I could have tried to get pregnant. Chemo had not thrown me permanently into premature menopause. Later rounds of chemo did not either. Nor did attempts to chemically shut down my ovaries, or a new trial drug. I had been in and out of sudden but temporary menopause more times than I could remember, each time filled with glimpses of my face changed to purple and clothes darkened with the swamp of sweat pouring from my body. But each time faded with a return to normalcy, my body asserting its natural function.

On a hike, just a week before leaving for Africa, I discovered a stone deep in the pocket of the pants I had dug out from the back of my closet. A small piece of quartz, white with sharp edges tinged in black.

Most of my Kilimanjaro teammates were new to high places. They had never climbed before, but had come to climb Africa’s highest mountain. They, like me, had come here with Above and Beyond Cancer for their own reasons: to test themselves, to prove they could, to overcome fears and discover new strengths, to reclaim their lives. In doing so, they discovered the difficulties of life in thin air. They retched, they gasped. They cried, and they moaned. But they, like me, continued up the mountain.

After enough healthy years had passed, at an age when many people are sending their children off to college or welcoming their first grandchildren to the world, I found myself finally comfortable enough with my cancer to try to get pregnant. Without success. Or rather, with only partial success. It seemed that getting pregnant at my age, after so many years of so many cancer drugs, was not as difficult as staying pregnant.

This group of cancer survivors, my Kilimanjaro companions, was full of life. Charlie’s wife was about to give birth back home. He carried a card from his four-year-old declaring him World’s Best Father. It was laminated. Jed carried a stuffed animal from each of his three daughters up the mountain. They hung on his belt. Kerri carried her three-year-old daughter in her eyes. It was her first time away. Stories of children and grandchildren abounded.

Esther, in her aqua gingham dress with the pink and orange buttons, has a strong voice. She is 10.

As the children at the orphanage sing us their songs, the colors of their dresses and shorts fade from my view. I see only the grey gravel of the playground. Their voices echo in my ears as the air grows thin. My lungs cannot get what my body requires, despite my gasping. I try to leave, but the gate is shut. And where would I go? Instead, I hide in the corner—grey gravel, brown gate, tan walls—out of view, until the sobbing subsides.

On this mountain, on Kilimanjaro, where life was stripped down to its most essential elements, there was no moment of crystalline clarity for me. I knew already that I was strong. I knew already that I would always continue. I knew already that unspeakable beauty and unbearable pain could exist in the same moment. On this climb, the truth played out for me in ways more subtle: the father, whose replaced joints were not as strong as his will, being helped up the mountain by his son; a pack being retrieved for a teammate as he stumbled into camp after dark, too tired to find it himself; a hand reaching out to steady me as I retched in the rocks; the eyes of someone whose thoughts were on her joy, half a world away.

When the children finish singing and introducing themselves, they invade our ranks, spreading like a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds through a field. They show us their rooms, play some version of Ring Around the Rosie, reach out for a hug. Esther makes a direct line through the crowd toward me, never taking her eyes off me. She leads me to the swings. I push her; she laughs. She wants to go higher; I start to feel nervous. She swings higher than all the other children, laughing. When I accidentally step in the way of another swing and am struck in the leg, she looks worried. These are not flimsy, lightweight swings; these are two-inch thick planks. A purplish bruise immediately begins to show. I tell her it’s fine, knowing that the hurt will stay with me for days. We trade places, Esther pushing me. She is strong. I swing high. I soar above walls painted with blue waves.

As long as I can remember, when the reality of my life became difficult, my escape hatch—my fantasy—has been running off to Africa to care for hungry children. When rocky relationships ended, when injury delayed my career, when doubt arose, I dreamed of Africa. I suppose most people have an escape fantasy. I suppose most people leave their fantasies firmly in place as fantasy, never confronting the reality. It is fantasy, after all, and the reality of a fantasy is often dirty, ugly, and scary.

But here in this country, with its dirt and poverty, its pit latrines and lack of clean water; in this place of need, with its walls of blue waves and multi-colored flags, I look into the brown eyes of both my loss and my fantasy. And far from frightening me, the reality of my fantasy pulls me in. A hand reaches for mine and invites me to play. It is small and soft, fitting easily in my hand. Rough nails scratch me slightly, but do not hurt.

Part of me longs to stay, to don bright colors and walk barefoot in red dirt. I long to flee the dung-colored hills of a snowless mid-winter back home. For now though, I’ll continue to wear shades of khaki and tan, and head further west into the Serengeti in our tan jeep, and then home as planned. But I’ll continue to dream in color—the colors of bee-eaters and sunbirds.

Julie Goodale is a professional violist living in the woods north of New York City. She is also a passionate advocate and fitness trainer in the cancer community; her work in this arena can be found at Julie is often found outdoors, running trails, climbing, hiking, or windsurfing. And although she is sometimes one of the slower skiers on a mountain, she likes to think that she’s just searching for the perfect turn.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Deserving Angels

by Nancy Caronia

n high school, I felt cheated by adults and ignored by peers. I had worked hard to pass the school budget, but we lost by less than 100 votes—it was the eighth time in nine years those who were old enough to vote decided against an increase. That year, my senior year, the school board deemed it necessary to cut all extra-curricular activities in order to convince its tax paying citizens to vote in favor of an increased school budget. There were no cheerleading squads, no sports, no musical concerts, no theatrical productions, no chess or folk music clubs—in short, there were no after-school activities. Longwood High School’s halls were quiet in the early evening. My senior class experienced loss as promising football, baseball, and basketball players left for other high schools to compete for college athletic scholarships. Those of us who excelled academically learned that we’d have to find outside activities to show our intellectual and extracurricular diversity.
We were afforded one brief respite for three weeks in the spring. Against the school board’s stringent rules, members of the faculty, staff, and student body enacted a yearly ritual—The Mad Show—on the school’s outdated auditorium stage. This variety show, made up of skits from television and theater, raised money, ironically, for programs that were forbidden that school year. The faculty and school administration went forward anyway; they knew the show would boost an injured school spirit.
I had been cast as a performer and a student director/choreographer. It was a large cast of almost thirty students and a handful of faculty and administrators, including the vice principal. Most of my classmates didn’t know me as anyone but a nerdy kid with a smart mouth who dressed in Levis and big shirts. If boys found me attractive, I didn’t know it. But under the big shirts I was a dancer with a lithe and muscular, if slightly curvy, frame. My body was put on display when the female student cast members performed “Don’t Tell Mama” from Cabaret. By today’s standards, we were modest. We wore Danskin leotards and tights with high heels. My body eclipsed the other, more popular, girls on stage. My plum leotard had spaghetti straps that crisscrossed through the back and was high cut across my thighs. I was proud of being asked to hold positions of authority in the show, but I was even happier when boys, boys who’d never noticed me before, wanted to talk to me after the show.
On Saturday night, I called home and told my mother I got a ride to the cast party with Opal and Eddie. I shouted over the music and chatter of the party: “Is it okay if I stay out a little bit longer? I think some of the teachers are coming. I’m with Eddie and Opal, and Eddie will drive us home. He promised.” I twirled the cord on the yellow kitchen phone, eyed the pre-mixed Vodka and Orange juices sitting in gallon juice containers, and listened as she took a drag on her cigarette before she said: “Stay out as late as you want. Just be home by 1 AM.” Always contradictory, I knew my mother trusted me, but trusted Eddie—an honors student like me—more.
I drank the pre-mixed vodka and orange juices and wandered from room to room. There were no teachers present. Within twenty minutes I was drunk—my guess is the drinks were 80 percent vodka and 20 percent orange juice. I lost Eddie and Opal in the crowd and boys who’d graduated, boys who might have been athletes, but were now nothing more than unemployed, made their way over to talk—to me. They were cute boys, but I didn’t know them, and they didn’t know me, except for what they’d seen of me on stage. One of them, with dark greased-back hair, blue eyes, and white teeth, leaned over, refilled my drink before he hooked his fingers in his Levi’s belt loop, and asked me: “So, how did you get so pretty?” I smelled his Old Spice and stared at the collar of his red flannel shirt; I didn’t dare look too closely at his face.
I remember thinking, how did I get so lucky? I remember I hadn’t yet kissed a boy. I remember thinking it was about time a boy kissed me. I remember flirting or what I thought was flirting.
Soon, as this handsome boy leaned into me and joked easily, even as I couldn’t understand half of what he was insinuating, Opal and Eddie emerged at my side. Opal grabbed my wrist and said, “C’mon, Nancy, we have to go. We have to get you home.”
I answered, “I don’t want to go home yet. The party is just getting started.”
The cute boy grabbed at my free arm and stared from Opal to Eddie and back. “Yeah, the party’s just gettin’ started!” he mimicked. Then he smiled, showing all of his white, white teeth, and said: “Don’t worry. She can stay. I’ll take her home.”
I remember Eddie stepped between the cute boy and me and said, “I promised her mother I would take her home.” I remember his voice shaking just a bit, but he held his ground.
Opal held onto my wrist and started walking away from the boy and his friends. The cute boy said, “Don’t take her, don’t take her from me. Please. Nooooo.” He pretended to buckle at the knees as he reached his arms towards me and his friends laughed. Eddie, with his skinny pale body and kinky Afro, walked backwards away from the crowd while I whined, “It’s too early. My mother said I could stay out late! Why do I have to go home now?”
Once I was buckled in, Eddie said, “We don’t want you throwing up in the car,” and demanded that I roll down the backseat window. Eddie and Opal remained patient, if frustrated by my non-stop babbling. I saw them shoot each other a look and smile. The wind blew on my face and I dreamed about cute boys who were kissable. When we arrived at my house, Eddie jumped out and beat me to my front door where he rang the doorbell. When my mother opened the door, I whizzed past her and plopped down on the sofa in the den, next to my mother’s recliner. She watched Johnny Carson while everyone else slept. She and Eddie whispered at the door. He must have told her that there was alcohol at the party but I didn’t know what I was drinking. I heard my mother tell him not to worry and thanked him for bringing me home.
When my mother sat next to me, there was a small smirk on her face. She said, “Why are you home so early? I thought you’d be out until at least 1 am.” Only an hour had passed since my phone call. I tried to pretend I was not drunk. My mother played along—this behavior was not a normal me so there was no need to worry. It was not as if I would do it again and again and again. I thought I’d fooled her. I said goodnight and walked up to my bedroom, but never made it to my bed. I dropped into my sister’s instead and woke her up. She kicked and screamed: “Get out! Get out of my bed!” I was already half asleep and didn’t budge. My mother told my sister not to mind me. I’d pay for my debauchery in the morning with a hangover.
Here’s the thing, she was right. My head pounded, my mouth was dry, and my stomach ached. But that was all I felt. I wasn’t ashamed of what I’d done or not done. I didn’t wonder what had happened to me.
In the years that have followed, I have come to realize just how brave Opal and Eddie were that night. They were my protectors; they refused to leave without me. Opal was one of the few African Americans at the party—our high school was a fairly mixed population in terms of working class white ethnic, black, and Latino students, but that didn’t mean the students mixed at after school activities. Opal was a beautiful and smart young woman, but she was still a Black girl in the late 1970s. She put herself in the middle of what could have been trouble with older boys who had been former high school athletes—white male athletes. She held onto my wrist and refused to let go. Then there was Eddie—smart, small, wiry, a bundle of nerves—he looked like a young Woody Allen wearing a slightly less full Michael Jackson “Rockin’ Robin” Afro. He did not allow those boys to dissuade him from what he took to be his promise although he never spoke to my mother prior to bringing me home. Opal and Eddie knew what would have happened to me if they left me at the party in the care of that cute boy.

ix months later during the first weekend of college, I was drunk—again. The drinking age was 18 and beers in the Rathskellar were 50 cents, not that it mattered since I didn’t pay for any drinks. During Freshmen Orientation Weekend, a boy inserted himself into a small group of people I knew from high school, from my community theater group, and my dorm. It was my first time away from home. This cute freshman boy watched me down four beers in quick succession, danced with me, and then offered to walk me back to my dorm room. Gifford, another high school friend turned college-drinking buddy, stepped in after I laughed and said, “okay!”
I didn’t drink and yet, here are two tales of drunkenness—tales of naiveté overriding judgment.
Gifford said, “No, I’ll walk you home, Nance.” My shaggy haired St. Bernard of a friend walked back to my dorm and hit the fifth floor elevator button—his body strategically inserted between this boy and me. Giff opened my door and watched as I hoisted myself up into my bunk. Then he turned to the boy and told him to leave. Gifford took my key and only after the boy left did he look me in the eye and state, “Go to sleep. I’ll be back in the morning to take you for some hangover food. You’re gonna feel like crap.” He placed a wastebasket on my desk under my bunk bed and walked to my door. “I’m going to lock your door now and then put the key under the door. Don’t let anyone in,” he said.
“Giff,” I joked, “Now that I’m in my bunk, I don’t think I can get down from here.”
“Good,” he replied, “just sleep. I’ll come and check on you in the morning.” And he did.

earing the verdict of the Steubenville trial, a case where an intoxicated high school girl was sexually assaulted by football players from her school and the act was documented on social media, I remembered Opal, Eddie, and Gifford, whom I never properly thanked. I was older than the girl in Steubenville, but I was at least as naive and helpless; Opal, Eddie, and Gifford saved me from her fate. They were angels who stepped forward when stepping forward might have placed them in uncomfortable (or even dangerous) positions. Eddie and Gifford were boys who didn’t buy into the “boys will be boys” rhetoric and understood, at their core, that they did not need to be aggressive, violent, and destructive in order to prove their manhood. Opal stepped in for a young girl who didn’t understand what might happen to her even though she appeared to want it—to want it all.
I remember that a month after the cast party Eddie was my date to my senior prom—he was only a junior, and no one had asked me. Eddie was coerced into being my date by a faculty member—“Nancy, of all people, cannot be allowed not to go to her prom,” he’d told Eddie. And so I went. We were comrades-in-arms. We worked to pass the school budget together; I made phone calls that late spring in the hopes that his senior year wouldn’t be like mine. It passed by approximately eight votes and Eddie thanked me for helping when I could have been bitter and walked away. But I never thanked him or Opal or Gifford for the nights when they readily played my angels. I didn’t recognize what protectors they were until the media saturation of the Steubenville trial brought back these memories of my innocent, yet drunken actions. Eddie, Opal, and Gifford deserve my gratitude for fighting for my safety in a moment when others might have thought I was asking for it. They deserve to be thanked for understanding that being drunk is not giving consent. Most especially, they deserve to be remembered for having my back when I didn’t know my back needed protecting.

y friend Anna’s four-your-old son tells everyone he meets that he is a protector: “I protect everyone from the bad guys. I fight all the bad guys!” Right now he thinks the only way to “fight the bad guys” is with swords or fists. The other day, I suggested, “there are other ways to ward off the bad guys.” He gave me a look that says, I don’t believe you, but go on anyway. “Sometimes,” I said, “you need to use your words or you need to help someone leave. That can be a way to fight the bad guys too.” He raised his eyebrows, looked down at his sneakers, and then said to his mom, “Can I have the cookie now? I need it.” We were at the farmers market where the men all grow or make things with their hands. Anna gave him the cookie even though she knew the sugar would send him flying off. And he did. Everyone smiled as Eli ran from stall to stall, the little capes on his Superman socks flying behind him in the breeze.

Nancy Caronia is a lecturer at the University of Rhode Island. Her creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including New Delta ReviewLowestoft ChronicleTell Us a Story, and Don’t Tell Mama! The Penguin Book of Italian American Writing. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2013. She is co-editor with Edvige Giunta of Personal Effects: Essays on Memoir, Teaching, and Culture in the Works of Louise DeSalvo (Fordham University Press, October 2014).

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Kindness of Oscar and Thomas

2014 Winter Contest Finalist
sharing the extraordinary in ordinary lives

The Kindness of Oscar and Thomas
by Eleanor Fitzsimons
n Monday, May 17, 1897, three frightened children were made to stand in line in the high-ceilinged central inspection hall of Reading Jail in Berkshire. The two older boys had been issued with coarse prison uniforms, each one emblazoned with a pattern of broad arrows signifying that the wearer was, for the time being, the property of Her Majesty’s Government. The youngest boy was so slight that no uniform could be found to fit him and he wore instead the ragged clothes that he had been arrested in. Each boy carried his bed sheet under his arm. All three had been convicted of snaring rabbits and were waiting to be escorted to the cells that had been allocated to them.
By chance the three lads were spotted by Prisoner C.3.3 as he was being escorted back to cell number three on landing three of C Block, located high above where they stood. A compassionate man, he was moved by the abject vulnerability of these children; they reminded him of his own two sons, aged ten and almost twelve at the time, although thoughts of his own beloved boys caused him nothing but anguish. Prisoner C.3.3 was due for release within two days, but the crime for which he had been convicted carried with it the probability that he would never see his sons again. He missed them dreadfully: ‘I envy other men who tread the yard with me. I am sure that their children wait for them’, lamented the man we know as Oscar Wilde.
Wilde encountered a good many child convicts during the seventeen months he spent in Reading Jail, but he had never before seen one as young as the little lad who couldn't find a uniform to fit him. Determined to help if he could, he made inquiries and learnt that the boys would be freed if someone paid a fine that was clearly beyond the means of their parents. Once he was back in his cell, he scribbled a note on a scrap of paper and slipped it under his door in the hope that it would catch the eye of Warder Thomas Martin as he patrolled the corridor. This scrawled note has survived and reads as follows:

‘Please find out for me the name of A.2.11. Also, the names of the children who are in for the rabbits, and the amount of the fine. Can I pay this and get them out? If so I will get them out tomorrow. Please, dear friend, do this for me. I must get them out. Think what a thing for me it would be to be able to help three little children. I would be delighted beyond words: if I can do this by paying the fine tell the children that they are to be released tomorrow by a friend, and ask them to be happy and not to tell anyone.’

The fine was paid and the children freed.

Wilde’s reference to ‘A.2.11’ demonstrates that he had also used this opportunity to inquire about a fellow adult prisoner, a young soldier named James Edward Prince who was being held in a cell located on the landing below him. Although it was perfectly obvious to the inmates of Reading Jail that this unfortunate man was suffering from some form of mental disturbance, his unorthodox behaviour had earned him the label ‘malingerer’. Rather than dealing with him sympathetically, the prison authorities prescribed a regime of regular beatings, and his anguished howls reverberated throughout the jail. Once he had discovered this man’s name, Wilde planned to use his access to the popular press to raise awareness of his plight and shame the authorities into intervening. His primary concern however, was for the children.

The notion of imprisoning children might seem barbaric to us now, but it was common practice in Victorian England, and represented a significant improvement on the treatment that had been meted out during the early part of the nineteenth century. Under the Bloody Code, a set of draconian laws that were in force between the years 1688 and 1815, children and adults alike were regularly sentenced to death for stealing; as recently as 1814, the year before the code was repealed, five children, all of them aged under-fourteen, were hanged at the Old Bailey for relatively minor transgressions.

Although their lives were spared during the years that followed, children frequently lost their liberty and their dignity. More often than not the crimes perpetrated by them were a direct response to the awful poverty they experienced; convictions for poaching and stealing food were commonplace. During 1845, seven children—six boys and one girl, not one of whom had reached his or her tenth birthday—were incarcerated in Reading jail. All had been sentenced to hard labor, with several suffering the further indignity of being whipped on release. When seven year-old Frank Stockwell was convicted of arson in 1884, he became the youngest prisoner to serve a sentence in Reading Jail. In 1891, a ten year-old boy was sentenced to three days in Reading for stealing cherries. The following year, an eleven year-old boy got twenty-one days hard labor followed by twelve strokes of the birch upon release for poaching rabbits.

Many of the warders in Reading Jail were family men who sympathized with the children under their charge, but each was fully aware that any attempt to express their compassion could lead to their instant dismissal, and leave their own families vulnerable to the very desperation that might result in their incarceration. One man among them was prepared to act on the pity he felt in defiance of the very real threat hanging over him. Warder Thomas Martin had been assigned to C Wing in February 1897, just two months before Wilde was due for release, and during that time the two Irishmen had struck up a strong and unlikely friendship.
Thomas Martin soon earned a reputation for compassion. He shared Wilde’s concern for the children who had been sent down for poaching rabbits and as soon as he realized that the youngest of them was too upset to eat the unpalatable, dry bread that constituted a meal, the kindly warder brought the boy some sweet biscuits that he had paid for himself. The poor child was so grateful for this act of generosity that he mentioned it innocently to a senior warder, having no notion of the harm this would cause. For this minor act of kindness, Thomas Martin was dismissed from his post and obliged to forfeit his pension.

Days later, Wilde, a free man by then, was horrified to read of Martin’s dismissal in the Daily Chronicle. Since he had been assigned to C-wing, Martin had shown great kindness to many of the inmates, and in particular to the man he called ‘the poet’. In defiance of  prison regulations, he had kept Wilde supplied with copies of the Daily Chronicle and a steady delivery of Huntley & Palmer Ginger Nut biscuits, which he obtained from the factory next door. On one occasion, as Wilde lay ill in his prison bed, Martin fetched him a prohibited bottle of hot beef tea, which he concealed beneath his shirt to avoid detection. As he returned to Wilde’s cell, Martin was summoned by the Chief Warder and obliged to stand talking to his superior for several minutes as the scalding bottle burned his skin.

Wilde had long planned to use the unique insights gained during his time in Reading Jail to campaign for prison reform and in a letter he wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas, later published as de Profundis, had declared: ‘The prison system is absolutely and entirely wrong. I would give anything to be able to alter it when I go out. I intend to try.’ Martin’s dismissal gave him the impetus he sought. Although Wilde had left England by then, and was in Dieppe at the time, he wrote a long letter, which he telegraphed to Henry William Massingham, Editor of the Daily Chronicle, protesting at the dismissal of Martin and highlighting the cruel treatment meted out to the children that were held in English prisons. This letter was published in full on May 28, under the heading: ‘THE CASE OF WARDER MARTIN: SOME CRUELTIES OF PRISON LIFE’.  It began:

‘I learn with great regret, through the columns of your paper, that the Warder Martin of Reading Prison has been dismissed by the prison commissioners for having given some sweet biscuits to a little hungry child’.

The thrust of Wilde’s argument was that children, unlike adults, simply do not have the capacity to understand, let alone reconcile themselves to, the notion of being punished by society for some perceived transgression: ‘The terror of a child in prison is quite limitless’, he wrote. Realizing that his argument would be more persuasive if he cited individual cases, Wilde described how on one particular occasion, as he was heading to the exercise yard, he witnessed the small boy who occupied a dimly lit cell located across the corridor from his own being spoken to sternly by two warders, one who was in the cell with him and another who stood outside.

Wilde describes how, in the face of this onslaught, the boy’s face became, ‘like a white wedge of sheer terror’, adding that, ‘there was in his eyes the terror of a hunted animal’. The next morning, Wilde overheard the child crying out for his parents and begging to be released. Rather than offering him any words of comfort, the warder on duty repeatedly told him to keep quiet, although in the man’s defense it must be remembered that he was prohibited from offering assistance and would have been dismissed if discovered doing so. To compound matters, this particular child had not even been convicted of any crime, but was being held on remand at the time.

One practice that concerned Wilde in particular was that of keeping children locked in their cells for twenty-three out of every twenty-four hours. Reading was primarily an adult prison and few special provisions were made for its younger inmates. If several children happened to be present in the prison at any given time, then they were permitted to receive one hour of school instruction in the prison classroom. Besides this, and the short time they spent in chapel, each child would pass the remainder of the day in solitary confinement, obliged to confront the horror of their circumstances while utterly alone.

Perhaps the most poignant line in Wilde’s epic poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written while he was in exile in France, reads: ‘For they starve the little frightened child, Till it weeps both night and day’. Wilde was horrified by the poor quality of food provided to inmates: breakfast at half-past seven consisted of a small piece of dry prison bread accompanied by a tin of water; at twelve midday each prisoner was served a main meal composed of a tin of coarse Indian meal ‘stirabout’, a type of cornmeal porridge; finally, at half-past five, a supper that was identical to the unpalatable breakfast was brought to each cell. Children who were upset and frightened could barely stomach this indigestible fare, but no alternative was offered.
Wilde proposed a series of reforms to address the shortcomings he highlighted, the most fundamental of which was that no child under the age of fourteen should be sent to prison at all. Yet he was pragmatic enough to realize that there was little likelihood of such a radical proposal being adopted and suggested instead that children who were incarcerated should at least have access to a dedicated workshop or schoolroom during the daytime and at night should sleep in a dormitory overseen by a night-warder. Wilde also advocated that children be allowed to exercise for at least three hours a day and receive a diet of tea, bread-and-butter and wholesome soup.

As to the warders, Wilde allowed that they were decent men on the whole who were constrained from showing any kindness to their charges, but he singled Thomas Martin out for particular praise, writing:

‘I know Martin extremely well, and I was under his charge for the last seven weeks of my imprisonment. On his appointment at Reading he had charge of Gallery C, in which I was confined, so I saw him constantly. I was struck by the singular kindness and humanity of the way in which he spoke to me and to the other prisoners’.

Although Wilde’s letter whipped up considerable public sympathy for Martin, the Prison Authorities would not entertain his reinstatement, and vociferously defended their actions in dismissing him. 

Although little is known of what became of Thomas Martin after his dismissal, what is certain is that, in spite of Wilde’s eloquent plea in his defense, he experienced a long and difficult period of unemployment, although efforts were made to raise funds on his behalf. In February 1898, a sixteen page reproduction of Wilde’s letter in pamphlet form, entitled The Case of Warder Martin was published by Murdoch and Co. and offered for sale to the general public at a penny a copy. A note from the publisher, carried on the front page, read:

‘Martin was dismissed. It happened in May last year. He is still out of employment and in poor circumstances. Can anybody help him?’

Wilde continued to campaign for prison reform. On March 24, 1898, a day that fell during the week that the Home Secretary’s Prison Reform Bill was due to be read for a second time, he had a follow-up letter published in the Daily Chronicle outlining, ‘what reforms in our present stupid and barbarous system are urgently necessary.’ It seems his campaigning was effective as, when the Prison Reform Bill became law in August 1898, a number of the changes contained within it replicated exactly the proposals proffered by Oscar Wilde.

As to the friendship between Wilde and Martin, although the two never met again, the warder maintained his admiration for ‘the poet’. After learning of Wilde’s death in 1900, Martin contributed a chapter entitled, ‘The Poet in Prison’ to R.H. Sherard’s Life of Oscar Wilde, published in 1906. Sherard, a loyal friend to Wilde, dedicated this biography to Martin and his touching dedication reads:

 To T. M., who in the extreme of adversity, proved himself the true friend of an unhappy man’.

Eleanor Fitzsimons is a freelance journalist and researcher. Her work has been published in The Irish Times, The Sunday Times, History Ireland and other publications, and she has researched documentaries for the Irish national broadcaster, RTÉ. In 2013, she won the Keats-Shelley Prize and was runner-up for the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize with “A Want of Honour”, her proposed biography of Harriet Shelley. She has an MA in Women, Gender and Society from University College Dublin. She is represented by the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency and is working on a book examining the influence of women on the work and life of Oscar Wilde. She lives in Dublin, Ireland.