The Witch of Witchwood Prison
As far as I can tell (half way through the first draft) The Witch of Witchwood Prison (working title) is a supernatural thriller set in a women’s prison in north-east England and a Georgian townhouse in Highgate, London.
The protagonists are Melissa Powell (inmate at Witchwood Prison, accused of mass murder), and Wanda Jones (a prison guard at the same prison).
I wanted to answer a question while writing the story – What is freedom, and can a person be free if they are incarcerated. My research consisted of reading women’s stories of being incarcerated, and if I’m honest, a British drama about a women’s prison.
Melissa Powell had been brought up to think she was special. It was on a night which was supposed to be her moment of triumph, that forty people were slaughtered. She was twelve when she was accused and convicted of mass murder. The victims were a group of Satanists who brought her up to be some sort of messiah. She was transferred to Witchwood Prison when she turned 18. Melissa believes she is able to astrally project her spirit to explore her physical surroundings and visit landscapes within photographs. Her best friend is a demon called Halloken.
Wanda Jones was brought up to believe she was worthless and unlovable. She joined the prison service to financially support her girlfriend through med school, but the girlfriend left her for a colleague when she qualified as a doctor, moving out of their jointly owned one-bedroom house in the suburbs. Now Wanda feels trapped in her job, not qualified to do anything else. She’s intrigued by and a little frightened of Melissa Powell when the inmate arrives, but the fear grows more powerful as strange things start to happen all of which lead back to the prisoner.
I’ll share part of the first chapter, where we meet Wanda Jones, and a few of my notes. The prison itself stands in the centre of an ancient forest called Witchwood. The administrative offices are housed in a Victorian mansion, behind which the concrete cell blocks were built. I sketched out the place in my notebook, excuse the lack of artistic skills.
(this is likely to change significantly during editing)
The sun was already rising as Wanda Jones drove home from Witchwood Prison. She had reached the eastern edge of the forest, where trees gradually gave way to meadow, when she spotted the red Volvo pulled into the layby to her left. The ancient car Patterson drove wasn’t exactly a common model, and a prickle on her neck insisted Wanda pull up behind to investigate.
Patterson worked as a guard on the afternoon shift and would have left the prison at least eight hours before. It made little sense to find her car here. The Volvo was empty except for Patterson’s ID behind the windscreen and a carrier bag stuffed into the footwell on the passenger side. A key was in the ignition.
Wanda circled the vehicle, checking the bumpers for signs of a collision, but there was only the odd scratch here and there, ubiquitous in older models. She peered through the passenger window at the bag, but couldn’t see what was inside. Curiosity made her open the unlocked door and pull out the plastic bundle. It was full of hair, an entire head’s worth of long, wavy, almost white, hair.
Melissa Powell had transferred to C block at Witchwood Prison that afternoon. The infamous mass murderer arrived from Vinnie Green Youth Facility. She’d looked pathetic, sat on the edge of her bed, staring mutely at a wall she’d plastered with photographs, her hair shorn carelessly, leaving small patches of short blonde spikes amidst pale stubble.
It had been a tough shift. Wilson, their resident Angel of Death, had brought the guards sprinting to cell 37 with her blood-curdling screams. She was found in a corner of her cell, raving and claiming the new inmate had sent demons to torture her. She only quieted when the doctor injected her with a strong sedative.
Even without the addition of a psychotic inmate, the night was already difficult. Three years ago this morning, Wanda had arrived home, after another night shift at Witchwood, to find a goodbye note from her girlfriend, Mandy.
‘What is this?’ Wanda asked aloud. Not wanting to link bundle of hair with the memory of Melissa Powell’s shorn scalp, but what other reason would Patterson have for possessing such a macabre memento?
Open fields spread out from the layby on this side of the road. There was no sign of Moira Patterson or any other living creature. Wanda would have expected crows at least, or livestock, but all was empty and still.
She crossed the road. Witchwood stretched to the west further than the eye could see, obscuring any horizon in that direction. The outer fence of the prison complex was surrounded by the same dense woodland. Here, at its eastern edge, only a few outlying trees spread their branches wide, perhaps taking advantage of the freedom from their crowded parents. The meadow fell away about fifteen metres beyond the road in a steep but steady decline until it met the river.
‘Where are you, Moira?’ she shouted.
She stepped carefully to the upper edge of the drop and peered over. The gurgle of water, tinted red by the low sun, and the clatter of stones being carried along then dumped again, filled her ears.
She lit a cigarette and approached the tree line. If Moira was hiding there, she would be impossible to find, but Wanda couldn’t understand why Moira would be hiding. It was more likely that her car broke down and, instead of phoning a breakdown service, she’d walked to the nearest garage. However, such a walk wouldn’t have taken eight hours, and the car should have already been fixed or towed.
Wanda returned to the Volvo and checked the glove compartment: a chamois leather and a road map was all it contained. She grabbed her mobile phone, not knowing Moira Patterson’s number, although Laney Dawson might.
‘Laney, it’s Wanda. I hope I didn’t wake you.’
‘I have to get the grand-kids to school before I can sleep, sweetheart. Is anything wrong? Are you still worried about Powell?’
‘Do you have a number for Moira Patterson?’
‘Her car’s been abandoned. I want to check she’s okay.’
‘Hang on, I’ll call her and phone you back. Where are you?’
‘On the Newtown road, heading home.’
‘Okay, give me a couple of minutes.’
There was a simple way to check whether the car had broken down. Wanda slipped into the driver’s seat and turned the key. The engine started, it was noisy, especially with the door open, but ticked over merrily. She closed the door and drove a few metres forward. Not even a shudder. She switched the engine off and put the key in the glove compartment.
Her mobile rang while Wanda stood in the layby, greedily smoking a second cigarette. The smoking ban at work had come into effect years ago, but she hadn’t been able to quit, and the patches made her arms itch, so she ripped them off as soon as her shift ended.
‘Straight to answerphone,’ Laney said.
‘Do you think I should call the police?’ Wanda asked.
‘It’s probably for the best. You do that, and I’ll speak to the warden.’
Wanda locked herself inside her car and dozed while she waited for the police to arrive. An abandoned car wouldn’t concern the emergency services ordinarily, but staffing a high security prison made them potential targets. In moments of unconsciousness, Wanda witnessed Moira Patterson attacking Melissa Powell’s hair with scissors. Instead of protesting, Powell was as passive as a china doll, but the terrifying grin she wore spoiled her elfin features. Wanda woke in a cold sweat when someone tapped on her window. Two policemen in uniform stood outside.
The police took Wanda’s details and made notes of everything she could tell them about Patterson, which wasn’t much. She didn’t mention her theory about the bag of hair. Once she was on the road again, the memory of the strange package was recalled so vividly it made her brain cramp, but the last thing she wanted to do was turn back and speak to the officers again.