I've been back home for nearly two weeks now and the foreign office is still insisting that I don't print the story yet.  We went through hell in that country and all they could say in effect was “We urge you  not to speak too soon about this.” To begin with I was furious and I was prepared to print and be damned, but my editor agreed to sit on it, at least for a while, and really I suppose she was right. That country  is no ally of the west  but, as the foreign office keeps telling us, maintaining some sort of political relationship with them out there is crucial right now, with the nuclear balance changing so rapidly in that region. If we're  to believe that talks between our two countries are to take place soon then a hostile public reaction here would certainly cause a diplomatic storm, but I still want it known eventually what happened to us. But of course  nothing will bring Gwenda back to me, and I know one thing for sure, I can't live without her. Therefore I'm writing to you, someone I can trust, with the story in full the way it was,  and not in some sanitised Whitehall version. Do with it as you will. Meanwhile, I'm living day and night with my nightmares, and forgive me please if I give you the story from the very beginning because I loved her so much.

            In the very first moment I saw Gwenda I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. It was a long time ago and it really was love at first sight. I was soon dating her but by the time we were nineteen my marriage proposal was met with nothing more than wide eyed amazement. A second proposal didn't get me anywhere either and life then took us in very different directions, but I never forgot her, not for a single day. I knew I'd never fall in love with anyone else, and seven years later it was sheer chance that brought us together again. I was in a shop and in she walked. We stood talking for ages and within a year she at last became my wife.

            We were together for such a short time though, and now there are so many questions “Why was she seeing that woman? Was it true? And then there was the mackintosh. Blue, thin, smoothly  rubberised inside, neatly belted, but cold looking, and being rubber it noisily rippled with her every move. It always put me on edge, and the combined smell of rubber and her perfume made my head swim. She knew I was embarrassed by it but that didn't stop her giggling and wriggling around in it to torment me.  But why choose to wear it for what was to come?  Did someone say it would hasten the end? Or was there another reason?

             When my editor offered me another foreign assignment but this time in Azactaal I straight away said no thankyou. The country's efforts to drag itself into the twenty first century were interesting, but I didn't think Gwenda would relish the idea of spending time in that part of the world, but I was wrong. She wanted to go and so we went, and in those first few months she found the country fascinating. Her gorgeous brown eyes were so often sparkling with sheer amazement, especially in the market places with their strange vegetables and brightly coloured fruit, and even more especially with some of the fabulous jewelry, but here was a country full of contrasts. The old with the new, the riches and the poverty, even the climate. Hot and dusty one part of the year, wet and windy the rest, particularly in the mountainous north, but this is a land that has always turned its back on the west and confined itself to a rigidly fundamental existence strictly in line with it's ancient religious culture. Here is a country where religious law can still be invoked to over-rule secular law.

            The magazine had to pull a lot of strings with the foreign office to get us in, and I was warned there was no western embassy or consulate to fall back on if we got into trouble, but I had a reasonable grasp of two of the  languages spoken in the region, and it was arranged for me to be given a desk at their state news office in the capital Nacrahna. It was  going well and people there were very friendly. After a week in a hotel they helped us find a beautiful flat. We were invited out to dinner parties as well. It was all very nice, and exciting too for Gwenda.  It was all so new to her. The country is very rich in diversity. Like most other cities out there,  Nacrahna  is luxurious but five miles into the desert the limousines give way to the camel trains. While some live among riches others live in absolute poverty as they have done for centuries, and the laws that keep the masses in order haven't changed much either. If  you are  poor you can starve there, and a severed hand is still the penalty for theft, and although Azactaal has all the trappings of a modern state, strict adherence  to their religion still means repression for women. For instance, although women have been educated there for several years and have made a great deal of progress, they are still very much sidelined. It has to be said that women do figure among the pillars of society now but in the main they're restricted to their own institutions, their own courts, schools, and womens prisons and women's hospitals too, and although the wearing of all black clothing is no longer compulsory, with many now wearing a western style of dress, they're still subjected to many laws that are as old as the hills. For instance, in public places they still mustn't gather together in groups of more than a dozen, and if they run a business they have to employ more men than women and so on. You even see it in insurance cover. As with some other countries still, a woman's life there is worth  less than a man's. 

            Because I was sometimes having to travel round the country for three or four days at a time, I was naturally pleased when local women took a liking to Gwenda and started taking her around the markets, and soon she was introduced to a woman called Vaska Radeem. She was a hospital doctor, but she also ran a womans debating society which met once a week to discuss politics and social problems, usually to do with the repression of women. She was a leading light in the women's movement out there and had encouraged many more groups to emerge, and when we were having dinner with her one night I asked her how much of a risk they were taking, and perhaps I should have given more thought and caution to her answer.“Very little.” She said. “The authorities don't mind if we don't step out of line too much, but they know one day we  must.” I have so often thought about that evening. She was a remarkable woman and she was obviously playing down the risks they were taking, but I've wished a thousand times we'd never met her.

            About  a month later we heard that eighteen women in the northern town of Rafka had been arrested for holding a public meeting outside a school in open defiance of the law, and we later heard they'd been imprisoned for a whole year. The authorities were obviously concerned by the activities of these women's groups because a couple of months later another group of women, demonstrating in another town, were arrested and imprisoned for a similar offence, and then two of Vaska's nurses were arrested. The girls had only been handing out leaflets campaigning for womens rights, but they were thrown  into prison. Vaska was furious, and within a week, as the storm clouds gathered in earnest, she too was arrested.

             Ominously full details of her arrest were not released, and it was an Azactaal colleague in the news office who discovered that she'd been charged with conspiracy and accused of travelling to Rafka, where those eighteen women had been imprisoned, to incite retaliation. It was so devious. They'd  accused her of driving to Rafka on a day she was off duty so there were no witnesses to say that she was at the hospital that day. However, there was one person who could help, and that was my wife. Excitedly she said “I can help her.” And she told me how they'd been in one of the markets together on that day, and off she went with someone who could translate to tell some of the market women, and soon she had the signatures of several who could swear that Vaska was there in a Nacrahna  market place, and therefore definitely not in Rafka. I was very proud of her, and eventually we were able to find the date of the doctor's trial and apply to give evidence.

            We arrived at the court, an impressive building close to the city centre, and after filling in several forms we were ushered into a huge courtroom, lavishly furnished but like any courtroom hollow sounding and very intimidating. Gwenda was now terribly nervous, and after the charge had been put to Vaska,  Gwenda was called with six of the market women to present their evidence and after they'd translated hers for the court records they questioned the doctor again, and at last it was declared that she was not guilty. We were delighted, but our relief was premature. They then announced that she would be held in custody pending further investigation. It was disgraceful. They obviously saw her as a major problem, a real thorn in the flesh of authority, and were determined to find something to charge her with that would stick. As they led her back to the cells she and Gwenda exchanged tearful goodbyes, and we  left wondering what would happen next.

             It was  a couple of months before a woman at work broke the news to me. Typically we'd heard nothing official but she'd learnt that Vaska was facing another charge, but this time she was being charged under their religious laws. Instead of being tried in an ordinary court under civil law she was going to be tried in a women's prison by a women's religious tribunal. Even with my limited knowledge I knew this was very worrying, but I couldn't understand why they'd transferred her from the civil system. The answer left me bewildered.  She said “They've accused her of a crime that translates into your language as a sin committed against the will of god.”  But it was absurd. “What on earth have womens rights got to do with god.” I asked. “Or indeed any form of social adjustment?” But she shook her head. “It's no longer about womens rights.” She said. “She's been accused of something altogether more serious now.” I waited for her to continue, but she was reluctant. “Go on.” I said.

            It took her several moments to find the words, and then she spoke in almost a whisper. “Seducing women to engage in sexual practices with her.” She said, and for a while I simply stared at her in silence. I'd never thought Vaska might be a lesbian, but then immediately of course I realised it was ridiculous. Vaska was no lesbian, she was obviously being framed. They'd had to abandon the charge of conspiracy and now to put her away they were fabricating a new charge. It was so damned corrupt. But then she said something that horrified me.“It's a sin condemned by all our holy teachings.” She said. “She's in grave danger now. If they find her guilty they'll put her to death.”

             I just sat dumbfounded. I just couldn't believe what I was being told. It was terrible to think that people were being put to death just because they were  homosexual, but with it gradually sinking in I asked in alarm what the penalty would be if she was executed. I was asking because I'd suddenly realised that in a country like that with such archaic laws she could be stoned to death. “No” she said quietly. “Here in our country, for women it is still the fire. They are burnt to death.” 

            When I told Gwenda she was astounded. “Oh for god's sake.” she kept saying. “How could they burn someone? And she kept asking if they would find her guilty but of course I had no idea. I could only quote my informant who'd told me that although the figures were never officially released it was thought that every year at least half a dozen women went to the fire. It was looking grim for Vaska, and although I was beginning to feel a little uneasy about Gwenda's involvement she still wanted to help the woman, and so I set about finding the date of her trial

             The prison was nearly a hundred miles to the north and depressing spots of rain were hitting the windscreen as we  arrived. It was a grim place. In the main it was a large complex of grey block buildings partly hidden behind high grey concrete walls topped with barbed wire, and once through the security checks we found  that no-one else but Gwenda was speaking up for Vaska this time.

             It was all very different from the sumptuous court in Nacrahna.  It was austere to say the least. The floors were tiled with grey tiles and the interior walls were two sickly shades of pale green, and as for the bleak court  room, it was awful. It wasn't very big but it was completely divided into two, with us and a few attendants sitting on wooden benches behind iron bars. Beyond them, in the other half of the room, there was nothing but a door, a table, and six chairs, and presently the women of the tribunal entered and took their seats. They were all dressed in black robes and as soon as they'd sat down  a couple of wardresses in smart grey jackets and long grey skirts brought Vaska into the room. She was dressed in a shapeless plain green cotton garment and her wrists were handcuffed behind her. When Gwenda saw her like that she groaned. And so the trial started, and when it was her time to speak Gwenda had to stand and read out her statement through the bars, saying the doctor had never shown  any homosexual inclination in her presence, and she had never heard anything said to suggest otherwise. But in the end it made no difference. It was a farce, but then justice often is in those countries where you have to prove your innocence rather than the prosecution prove your guilt.

            The prosecution was in the hands of a woman who produced no prosecution witnesses who could be questioned and caught out,  and Vaska was obliged to defend herself with no legal assistance. This she did as well as she could, but before long came the fatal blow. The prosecutor read aloud statements from her two nurses who'd been arrested. Both said they had never shared sexual activity with the accused, but she was an extremely dominant woman and was always wanting them and other girls to submit to her in sexual activities that were homosexual and perverted. At that point Vaska cried out in anguish “ You must have tortured them to say that” She shouted but that was really the end of it. It wasn't long before the woman at the centre of the table conferred briefly with the others, cast a last look at what each had written, and then with just a moment's pause, and if my attempt at translation was correct, solemnly declared that she had been found guilty and condemned her death, adding that she would be taken out to a yard prepared for the execution of her sentence, and there she would stand at a post and endure death by burning. It was as brief and brutal as that.

             As I sat hugging Gwenda, who was now in a flood of tears, the doors opened and we watched Vaska being taken into another room, and at that moment something absolutely took my breath away. We both saw it. She was handed over to a group of wardresses who were dressed very differently from the others They were wearing glossy black rubber mackintoshes. They were dressed in smart, belted, rippling mackintoshes, the sort with the polished black rubber on the outside, and also gleaming black rubber wellingtons. It was so unexpected. Quite apart from the embarrassing fear I've always had of rubber, I've always thought women wearing any form of black uniform looked frightening, but seeing those gleaming black rubber mackintoshes was a total shock. 

            Next day a colleague laughed when I asked who those woman were. “We have them in all our prisons, male and female” He said. “In English the term for them will translate to something like the end of the line staff.” Adding “They do the dirty work.”  And when he saw my look of revulsion he laughed again. “Not nice people, not nice at all, but they do the job.” Then he said “You westerners are too fragile, here we execute people every week, but here we walk the streets in safety. In your country you cannot.”

             I knew all about their appalling statistics on social discipline and human rights, but later I spoke to someone else about it. “Why do they wear those rubbers?” I asked, and her off  handed attitude was typical of that brutalised society. “Well I suppose” She said “Rubber is waterproof, dirt proof, and blood proof, and I suppose they sponge down easily” I felt sick, and I had the sudden vision of a poor woman stealing food for her children and having those women in their water and blood proof uniforms chopping off  her hand with a meat cleaver. Then I thought of something else that made me feel even worse. Rubber would be vomit proof  too. Nevertheless I had to ask about the two nurses who'd sealed the doctor's fate with their damning statement. “Would they have been tortured to say that?” I asked, and she sighed, and this time looked at me accusingly. “You people in the west do it too, but here it's no secret.” And as she walked away  I thought  How could a woman torture a young nurse?  God, how naive I was.

             That should have been the end of it, and I wish to god it had been, but unknown to us at the time, immediately after the doctor's so called trial there was a last ditch effort behind the scenes to save her.  It was clear that less fortunate women were burnt without question, but she had influential friends who could pull strings, and apparently a temporary reprieve was forced on the tribunal. I was told that a civil case lawyer of the secular courts had tried intervening on the grounds that even if she was a lesbian, a lesbian, like any other lover, has to have a partner, and without one her guilt must be in doubt. It was a clever ploy but the authorities weren't to be put off. To close that loop hole they soon had a lesbian partner named for her. Apparently the two nurses provided it.

            Presumably under further torture, or at least the threat of it, they provided a name, but not some-one from among their group of friends. Instead they named a woman with whom  none of them had ties of any sort. Furthermore, the woman they named was known by everyone to have become a close friend of the doctor, and that some-one was my wife. They each wrote a statement saying that Gwenda was the doctor's lesbian lover. All the tribunal had to do now to uphold the doctor's conviction was arrest Gwenda and convict her of the same charge.  And that of course, inevitably, would send Gwenda to the fire too.

            One night I got home and found her gone.  Neighbours told me that she'd been taken by the police but no-one knew why or where she'd been taken. Once I'd pulled myself together I thought it must have something to do with the evidence she'd given to the tribunal, and so I drove straight away to the prison. I was hoping she'd been asked to give her evidence again, and maybe it would result in Vaska's release, but when I arrived I not only found that she was there, but also that she was under arrest. And when one of those smart grey suited women appeared and calmly told me that she was being held under religious law I just stood in total disbelief. Then, speaking in very precise English, she told me she was to stand trial for participating in homosexual acts in the city of Nacrahna with a female doctor by the name of Vaska Radeem.

            I was so much  in shock she repeated what she'd said, and then she added. “I must inform you that she will be tried here in this prison under religious law by a women's religious tribunal, and I must also inform you that if she is found guilty she will be sentenced to death.” I couldn't believe what she was saying, I just couldn't, and furiously I found myself arguing that my wife was no lesbian's plaything, and that she was a foreign national and would not be subject to their laws, but she kept shaking her head and telling me that was not so. Of course I knew she was right, and there was no extradition agreement in existence between our two countries either. All I could do was to keep insisting that there was no way my wife could have been intimately involved with that woman, and of course I wanted to see her, but it was not to be. “No.” She kept saying “You cannot see her.”     

            Going home without her was awful. All the way I was driven crazy by the prospect of her being found guilty and, oh god, being burned to death. I drove in a daze, and having no embassy or consulate to go to for help I rang my editor, and after asking me a whole string of questions she explained that she would have to be guided by the Foreign Office, and within fifteen minutes a Foreign Office official was on the phone to me, urging me not to report the incident to anyone until further notice. “We'll be doing everything here”. He said “If you talk to anyone else it could seriously hamper our efforts.” Adding “This must not be made public yet.”  Naturally I was worried by the prospect of a delay. I just wanted Gwenda to be freed from that awful place, but I never dreamt that our dilemma was being quietly swept under the carpet.. 

            I drove back to the prison again in the hope of seeing her, but again they refused. All I was able to do was establish that her trial had been arranged for the following week, and every day I drove that long journey, and every day it was the same. One of those smart women would shake her head and say  “I'm sorry but under no circumstances will you see her.”  Every time I protested they would just refuse. “You will not see her.” That's all they would say. I was  living in a nightmare, and in a country where there was no sort of assistance, legal or otherwise, it was hopeless. I had no-one to turn to but a handful of acquaintances in the office who were as helpless as I was. Some could only shake their heads. Even the most sympathetic could only weep. Then a girl, perhaps the youngest in the office, said slowly “Our country is on the rack.” She said “Our hands reach out for the future but our feet are shackled to the past. We have tanks and missiles and we have mules. You have religious freedom, we have intolerance. And while you have freedom, we have witch-hunts”.

            I was desperate, and all the time I was tormented by the fear of what was happening to Gwenda.. All the time I was worried sick by the fact that they wouldn't let me see her because a woman in the office had warned me that they may persuade her to confess, and I knew what that meant.  I was by then convinced that they were torturing her. I was going through hell. The very thought of those women torturing Gwenda was driving me mad, and at the prison I kept asking them if she was being forced to confess, but of course they flatly refused to comment, which to me implied that they were. I  already knew enough of what went on in their prisons, ranging from the blunt and brutal to the long and drawn out, like chaining a prisoner up by the wrists to stand for days on end. 

            In my more constructive periods I tried to find friends of Vaska who might come with me to say they had never seen any lesbian contact between her and my wife, but I think they were all too scared. Some promised to help but didn't, and all I could do was write and re-write what I was going to say at her trial, and when I ran out of words I sprawled on the bed and buried my face in her night dress, breathing in the sweet smell of her and crying out for her. 

            They say love hurts, and my heart was literally aching, day and night. And as I lay there I had something else to think about too. It was something completely unimaginable that a colleague had already told me about when Vaska had been condemned, and so when an official at the prison tentatively brought it up, at least I knew what she meant. It was a question that seemed impossible to answer, and one that I will not yet burden you with. I kept thinking of what she'd said  “It's an ancient custom. We call it Shrabniva. It  is for you to say.” But I couldn't put my mind to it, although heaven forbid, I knew eventually I might have to to.

            Eventually, after days of hell, I drove to her trial and sat again behind those bars. Eventually the women of the tribunal came in and took their seats and suddenly the doors opened and they brought Gwenda in. It broke my heart. Her face was bruised and, just like Vaska had been, she was handcuffed and wearing a similar awful green sort of cotton prison garment, and in tears she was staring across to me desperately for help, but I could do notheing. Then after they'd questioned her in English on how she'd met the doctor I was asked to give my statement. Reading from what I had written I told them the charge was entirely false and that she could never be homosexual, and I told them too that every night she slept in my arms contentedly like a real wife, not like a girl who craved for a woman, and then I went on and on, gradually breaking down and saying anything that came to mind, until, when I told them I  loved her so very much, I could speak no more, and I was asked to sit down.. I could do nothing more.

             The prosecutor then turned to Gwenda and asked her if it was true that she slept in my arms every night?  Gwenda said that it was, and then the bitch asked her how many nights I was away from home sometimes. It was a cruel question and Gwenda looked across to me in alarm, wondering what on earth she should say,  and the woman, raising an eyebrow, also looked across to me. Then turning back to Gwenda she said something that cut through me like a knife. With a smug little smile she said to Gwenda  “He can't help you now.” It was a callous remark, but it was agonisingly true.

             The woman then started to read from a sheath of statements from people saying that I was sometimes away  for two or three nights at a time, and some, who were obviously lying, said she was often seen leaving our flat of an evening, and rapidly Gwenda was becoming tongue tide and flustered, and then came another onslaught. The woman produced statements that must have been obtained under threat from several women declaring that Vaska had bragged to them that she had persuaded Gwenda to come to her house on several occasions, and each time Gwenda had obeyed her and had submitted to her in acts of extreme sexual perversion including bondage. It was both outrageous and ridiculous. It was as corrupt as Vaska's trial. They were trying to make it sound as if Gwenda was some kind of masochist. It was absurd, they were quoting no facts and no evidence, they were  just quoting from statements given by women who weren't even in court to be cross examined, or even to verify that they were being quoted accurately. 

             Gwenda was in tears trying to tell them it was untrue, but with mounting panic, I could see she was slipping away from  me. With every accusation she was getting in more of a state and soon, with my heart in my mouth, I could see it was coming to an end. At the table they were  handing their papers to the woman in the middle. She glanced through them, and then looking up she formally announced  to Gwenda in perfect English that she had been found guilty. I yelled “No.” And Gwenda burst into tears, and as the wardresses tightened their grip on her, the woman condemned her to the fire in the same icy tone that she'd condemned Vaska. “At ten tomorrow morning” She said “You will be taken out to to a yard prepared for the execution of your sentence, and there you will stand at a post and endure death by burning.”     

            Gwenda was crying her heart out and this time they didn't wait outside. Four hard faced  wardresses in gleaming cold looking black rubber mackintoshes came in, their wellingtons squealing on the polished floor, and took hold of her. As they marched her away, shouting at her to be silent, she was trying desperately to turn and cry out to me, and all I could do was watch them take her away.

            Immediately I was led off to a small room, and all I can remember was being given something to drink which I'm sure was sedated, and then a couple more of those grey suited women  entered, and after bestowing upon me a genuine measure of sympathy, they quietly endeavoured to bring my thoughts to bear on the one enormous and seemingly unanswerable question I now had to face. There was no escaping it. I'd known right from the start that if she was found guilty it would come to this. Colleagues back  in Nacrahna had warned me. The question was did I want to accept their custom of Shrabniva. It simply meant 'Attending', and perhaps you can see why I couldn't bring myself to think of it until now. Now though I had to. I'd been told by colleagues that those close to a condemned prisoner could be present at the execution, and now those women were explaining it all over again to me “It is seen by those who accept the tradition as a duty” one said “A chance to show support and love for the condemned in their final minutes. But of course, you don't have to accept.”  

            It was the most agonising decision you could ever imagine. If I said yes it would be unbearable, but if I declined I would have to walk away from that prison without even having seen her, and desperately I wanted to see her. I couldn't bare the thought of turning my back on her and walking away, but could I watch them burning her?  But then, would I always condemn myself for not being there ? Would she be looking for me ? If I walked away from this what would she think if she looked for me and I wasn't there?  Eventually it was that which brought me to my decision. I couldn't bare the thought of her finding that I'd gone. I knew what the answer would have to be.

            When at last I'd found the courage to say yes one surprised me by taking hold of my hands and squeezing them. “Yes.” She said “Be there for her. Don't let her die alone. You'll be able to speak with each other. She'll need you.” Suddenly I was crying. I hadn't cried until that moment, but now I couldn't stop. The numbness had gone and I was talking through it, talking rapidly and right from my heart. I don't know what they'd given me to drink and I'm  not sure what I was saying except I do remember saying one thing over and over again, perhaps even after they'd gone. “No matter how long we might have lived” I was saying  “No matter how long we might have been married, I would never have left her, never, and I won't leave her now.” I also remember mumbling something inanely about our wedding vows, “'til death do us part.”  And so, I'd committed myself. I was going to be with her. I was going to endure every moment with her, and I prayed  “Please god let me die with her. Let my life just end with hers.”

            When they returned I  found myself being taken dizzily up in a lift and eventually to a large room with noisy air conditioning and no windows. There were half a dozen single beds and everything you might need, including food which I couldn't even look at, and several holy books, even a Christian bible, and for a while they sat with me because I wanted to know what I would face. I wanted to be prepared, and with considerable understanding they told me absolutely everything. They told me that a condemned prisoner was allowed to keep a solitary garment to wear and as tactfully as possible they outlined the method of execution, adding that it didn't take long.

            Then, as they went one of the women told me  that soon I might hear something. “It won't be your wife.” She said quietly. “Try to ignore it.” And after a while I did hear something but there was no way of ignoring it. The sound was very faint but it was unmistakable. Although the air conditioning unit above the door was almost drowning it out I knew what it was. It was  a woman dying. I knew who it was too. It was Vaska. That calm and noble woman was screeching.

            All night I lay on the bed knowing that I would soon be seeing Gwenda screaming and screeching and already it was driving me crazy. But I will spare you those hours, all the hours of the night, that long long night, and then there was the dawn and then those hours that tortured me most, those hours leading up to the moment when the door opened and the same two who'd brought me there came to collect me. It was really happening now but it seemed unreal. I went with them and entered one of the lifts. Nothing was said. A button was pressed and we dropped like a stone to the ground floor. On leaving it we walked down a long echoing corridor and at the end of it we stopped  at a door. One of them unlocked it and we entered a darkened room with a concrete floor which I thought at first was a garage because the only light came from a row of small windows  above a pair of green sliding doors. As we went to them I thought we were going through them but no, as they pulled them noisily apart to reveal daylight and fresh air I was confronted by a row of iron bars. There was no going any further, and I stood looking out across a small concreted yard totally enclosed by a high brick wall topped with a row of barbed wire. As they turned away I heard one of them telling me something about the door behind me not being locked if I wished to leave, but I couldn't answer, I just stood gripping those bars.

             I'd  known exactly what to expect. I'd  asked. I'd needed to know just what I would see, and I'd been told. I'd wanted to be ready. I wanted to be prepared. But nothing, nothing could ever prepare you for that. In the centre of the yard was a tall wooden post. It was hung with chains and it was completely surrounded by faggots of wood. Two layers of them neatly laid across each other. Two layers of tightly bundled old grey branches and bundles of almost black tinder dry brushwood.   

            Suddenly I heard the ripple of rubber, and a couple of those women in their black mackintoshes and wellingtons came and looked at me through the bars. Their attitude showed there would be no sympathy here and one of them bossily proceeded to lecture me, telling me that I would have a brief opportunity to speak to my wife, but on no account was I to reach for her through the bars, and even before she'd finished I heard the sound of a tractor, and across the yard two more wardresses dressed in the same rubbers came into view and opened a big pair of gates. The tractor came in with a trailer loaded with more faggots. The driver, a woman in green overalls, switched off the engine, jumped down and walked out through the gates. Then, as the wardresses bolted the gates behind her, a woman appeared from my right. She too wore the same uniform glossy black rubber mackintosh but she was fat and considerably older, and she had extremely short grey hair, cropped to an inch of her skull. She appeared to be of a higher rank too. She wore  a small silver star on each lapel, and straight away she went to the pyre and stepped up onto it. With the bundles of dry wood and twigs cracking and snapping under her wellingtons, she lumbered over them and took hold of each of the chains and started to check them and their shackles, tugging at them to see that they were secure enough to hold my poor young wife. 

            Then on the far side of the yard, beyond the tractor and trailer, two more wardresses  in gleaming black macs appeared, and my heart now was absolutely pounding. They had Gwenda.  Although they were beyond the tractor I could see they had her held between them and she was wearing something blue and her arms appeared to be secured behind her, but then, as they came fully into view, I couldn't understand it. Gwenda was wearing her mackintosh. She was wearing her little thin blue rubber lined mackintosh. I'd been told a condemned prisoner was aloud to wear only a single garment, but why had she chosen to wear her mackintosh? It was belted but not all the buttons were done up, and you could tell she had absolutely nothing on under it. Her feet and legs were bare and it was quite clear she was completely naked beneath it by the way the smooth rubber was slithering around her. She'd obviously put it on to be brought to the prison, but why had she chosen to wear it now, to die in?

             She looked awful.  Her face and eyes were frozen in sheer terror, and she was shaking, literally shaking, but then suddenly she let out such a howling cry and she immediately bent forward. I thought she was being sick, but then I realised. She'd seen the stake. The poor girl had seen what she was being taken to and she couldn't bare to look at it, and as they brought her to towards me they were shouting at her to stand up straight, and as they came her rubber mac was rippling around her naked body and slapping against her legs in a way that I could hardly watch, but when she saw me her eyes lit up. “It wasn't true.” She was crying out. “ Darling it wasn't  true. I love you, it was all lies.”

            My heart was breaking and all I could do was tell her that I loved her, but so cruelly they gave us no more than those few meagre moments. The woman with the silver stars had Gwenda turned to her, and in perfect English she asked her if she had prepared herself. Gwenda closed her eyes and loudly groaned “Oh god.” And the woman  turned to me then and asked “Do you have anything more to say to her ?”  I knew this was the end, and I could only say “Gwenda I  love you.” And that pig of a woman simply turned then, and as she walked off she just said “Bring her.”

             It was so callous, she just said “Bring her.” Gwenda cried out desperately “Oh God No!” But they  just  marched her off,  shouting at her, and with one of the others harshly telling me there was nothing I could do I stood watching her go, convulsed in terror, bent forward  and half stumbling barefoot to that ghastly pyre. The woman in charge stepped up onto it and then I saw Gwenda wince as they made her step with her bare feet onto the first layer of faggots, and then, as she stepped onto the next layer, her mac flapped open for a moment and I saw a glimpse of her lovely bare white legs.

            Quickly they released her wrists, and then they thrust her roughly back against the stake, shouting orders at her and pulling her arms right back behind it. While the wardresses then handcuffed her wrists together behind the post, the older woman stood right in front of Gwenda, talking to her and pressing herself right up against her. Gwenda was trying to turn away from her, but the woman had her arms right round her. I realised then she was pulling a couple of chains round from the stake, and with these she girdled her, shackling the chains together over her mackintosh belt. Then she secured her upright with two more chains crossed up over her breasts and over her shoulders, and while one shackled them behind the stake the other squatted and shackled a chain from the post twice around her ankles.

            With their work done the wardresses stepped down while their senior went behind to see that her victim's handcuffs were secure, but then she came round to the front of her and started fussing over her. She was arranging Gwenda's hair and with a sickly smile I heard her saying “Such a lovely girl. Aren't you a lovely girl.” She kept saying it, and Gwenda, in tears and looking as if she was going to be sick, was trying to twist away from her, but of course she couldn't, and next the woman was actually stroking her hair. It was blatant, this woman was obviously lesbian, but I couldn't catch what she was saying until I heard something that infuriated me. With that same nasty little smile she was calling Gwenda a pretty 'woman's dolly'. It was so cruel. I so wanted her to leave her alone, but now she was starting to tidy Gwenda's  mackintosh, carefully straightening the way it hung from under the chain around her waist and the way it hung over her hips. And still talking to her, she then started to arrange the folds hanging down over the front of her legs, and as she slowly ran her hands down her mac I saw Gwenda suddenly close her eyes and groan. That pig of a woman was touching her, slyly but surely touching her, I swear she was, but when at last she'd finished toying with her she stepped back, and looking her over with great satisfaction I heard her say  “And now my poor dear you're going to burn.” And with that she stepped down from the pyre. 

            It was a ghastly sight, the girl I loved with all my heart, sobbing feverishly now and looking  across to me so pitifully, left standing upon a pyre and chained helplessly to a post. It was tearing me to pieces, but it was a sight that had survived every  age of history, a beautiful woman standing alone, abandoned and with all hope gone, to be burnt alive. But this was the girl I loved, the girl I'd hurried home to, the girl I'd held in my arms at night, the girl my heart beat for, craved for, ached for, the one I lived for, and now she was condemned in the name of religion to be burnt at the stake in front of me.

            Then, oh god, coming from beyond the tractor, a wardress came into view carrying a flaming torch. Holding it out in front of her she brought it to the older woman, and Gwenda, turning from me, saw the woman take hold of it and wide eyed in terror yelled out in absolute panic “Oh Please God No!” But the woman just looked up at her prisoner and said “I'm sorry dear but it's time.” and she took a step forward. And with Gwenda crying her heart out, the wardress close to me said again “There's nothing you can do.” And the woman with the torch glanced again up at Gwenda, said something I couldn't catch, then with her mac wrinkling around her she bent forward and held the flames to the brushwood. With a cry now of utter despair Gwenda threw her head back against the stake, and almost immediately the brushwood started to crackle and in seconds smoke and little flames were creeping up through the faggots as the woman  made her way round, lighting the brushwood all the way round the pyre. Gwenda was now shuddering, absolutely shuddering, and looking across to me with tears streaming down her face. She knew she didn't have long now. I'll never forget that look in her eyes, and all I could do was to cry out to her that I loved her, but the brushwood was so dry that grey smoke was already drifting up around her.

            It's  a sight that I will never be free of. I'm tortured by it day and night, but it was my choice. I had to stay with her, and when I think of the way her eyes lit up when she saw me I'm so glad that I did, but I will always see her like that, every time I turn out the light I see her. Even when sleep comes I see her, and when I wake in the morning I see her again, chained with her arms pulled right back behind the stake, my beautiful wife, crying, naked in that thin rubber lined mackintosh standing on a faggot of wood, waiting for the fire to reach  her poor bare feet.

             By now her executioner, picking her moments between the swirling smoke and flames, was kicking some of the faggots further into the fire with the soles of her boots, making them flare up even more rapidly, and as she did she was still saying things to Gwenda.  At one stage I heard her say “It won't be long now dear.” And all the time the fire was spreading ravenously, noisily surging and leaping up through more of the faggots. I could feel the heat and it wasn't long before her torturers were starting to move back. With the wood so dry it was rapidly becoming a fierce blaze and soon the heat was becoming stifling. Already Gwenda was panting for breath. Her breasts were  heaving as she pressed herself back against the stake, and eventually in a smoky haze she was rolling her head almost deliriously from side to side against it and groaning in despair. Oh god it was awful. The fire was rushing wildly through the faggots now, and with every moment, as the fire began to clear the haze, the heat was becoming more intense, and as she cried and twisted first one way then the other trying to get free of her chains they were grinding against the post, but they were never going to let her go. And before long I saw her face was drenched not only in tears but in sweat as well, and as she strained from side to side in that horrid wrinkling rubber, you could see the heat was becoming unbearable and eventually, with the flames becoming more and more fierce, oh god, I could see that she was starting to scorch.. At first, wild eyed, she was desperately trying to bare it, but it was getting worse, and still she fought against it, but soon she just couldn't bare it. She couldn't bare the searing heat any longer. Her torture had begun, and before long she was screaming out to me and wildly trying to twist herself free, but there was no escape. The poor girl, she was screaming in her torture, and writhing frantically, frantically, and then I could see the fire was now into the faggots at her feet. Oh god it was horrendous. Her feet were burning. She was just shrieking now, she was going beserk trying to pull her feet free but of course she couldn't, and in no time I could see through the shimmering heat that her feet and legs were becoming red raw. Oh god it was horrible. Her feet were burning, blistering and burning raw, but her torture was going on and on. She was screaming and screeching and throwing herself frantically against those chains, madly trying to wrench  herself free, and soon even her face was red from the scorching heat, and as she burned I let my grip on the bars slide and I collapsed to my knees.

            It was hideous. I was watching the girl I love burning alive. As she screamed incessantly above the roar of the fire I was crying out “Please oh please let it end for her please.” I couldn't stand it. Then, after god knows how long, I eventually saw her mackintosh was catching light,  it was on fire around her legs and then suddenly she was ablaze all over, all the way up her body, her arms and even her hair was ablaze. In seconds she'd become totally engulfed in an erupting roaring blaze of orange flames and thick black smoke from the burning rubber. She'd became a screeching, twisting inferno, and through it all I could see that even the post she was chained to was ablaze.

            At long last, when there were no more screams and no more movement, the wardresses dragged the extra faggots of wood across from the trailer, and working in pairs they threw them onto the fire. When they'd finished, and the great shower of burning embers they'd created had gradually cleared I saw Gwenda for the last time. The fire was still raging wildly, but the black smoke had gone and now she was an unrecognisable blackened mass, burning still, like the post she was chained to, but motionless and silent.  I waited there with her until the end. Eventually the stake began to collapse. It leant forward with her for a few moments, and then, with another great flurry of embers it fell, taking her down  into the red hot depths of the blaze, and gone from me for ever.