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Set Me Free

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Dear James…




Hello James.


Christ. This is harder than I thought. My pen hovers above the paper as I stare down at the blank sheets as I attempt to write. How does someone address a person they don’t know? How does someone address a person they’ve never spoken to? How does someone address an inmate ? How do I? I have no clue.


When pen finally meets paper I scribble and decide on going with a simple Hi James . The rough sound of the words being written down fills the room and I sigh as once again. I simply don’t know how to continue. I knew it was a bad idea, or one I should simply not acknowledge. It’s insane. It’s absolutely nuts. Before I can second guess it, I crumple the paper into a wrinkly ball before flinging it across the room. This is crazy and I knew it from the moment when my oh so wonderful friend Geillis sent me that article a few days ago that informed me about an organisation that lets you become pen pals with an inmate.


Why she thinks this is something that I should do is beyond me. It made me wonder if she even knows me at all. I get up to pour myself a glass of water when my phone rings and Geillis’s name appears on the display. Speak of the devil . I pick up and press the speaker button as I rummage in the cabinet for a glass.


“Did ye do it?” She asks right away, excitement brimming in her voice. I can easily imagine the green sparkle in her eyes. I fill the glass with tap water before sighing loudly. 


“Hello to you too, friend,” I take a gulp of water, hearing her impatience on the other end of the line.


“I dinna have time fer hello’s.e ken my time is limited so I want tae use it wisely,” she chirps and I walk back to my desk, staring again at the empty stack of papers in front of me. I could lie to her, say I have written it but never heard back. I could just say no until she stops talking about it. I could… “Claire!” She exclaims after a few seconds of silence and I get ripped out of my thoughts, clearing my throat.


“I didn’t and I’m not so sure I will,” I admit, taking another sip of water before setting the glass down again. “This is crazy, Gee. I seriously don’t know why you would think this is a good idea. Why on earth would I need a pen pal who sits behind bars after doing I don’t even know what?!” My eyes travel to the crumpled paper ball on the floor as Isigh and I hear my friend scoff under her breath.


“Ye and I both ken that after Frank dumped ye, ye lost some confidence. And before ye interrupt me, yes it matters. Ye need to practise communicating wi’ people other than me. I canna be there fer ye at all time, wi’ all the flying around the world I have to do for work. And I canna let ye suffer alone.”


“So you think a criminal is the solution to end my loneliness?” I lean back in my chair when I hear Geillis’ heels click and I know she’s close to hanging up the phone.


“People in prison are lonely too, Claire. Mebbe it isna so bad to just go ahead and write that letter. What do ye have to lose? This person canna touch ye, hell he wilna even ken how ye look or who ye are. Just try it.” I hear her talking to someone else and before I know it she rushes into a goodbye and hangs up the phone. That’s the life of a flight attendant. I could never compare it to the one I lead as a bookstore owner.


My eyes linger once more on the empty paper, waiting to be filled with words. “Hell, I need something stronger than water,” I mumble to myself before walking up to my closet filled with my french friends. I pick up the bottle of Merlot, grab a glass and sit back down as I pour it generously. I take a large gulp before hitting the pen on paper, when my mind decides to bless me with numerous thoughts.


What if he robbed a bank? What if he’s a rapist? A murderer? Oh hell, what if he’s a rapist and a murderer?


Suddenly being lonely doesn’t sound that bad.


I take another long sip of my wine, closing my eyes as I try to calm myself down before I shut down the outside world and start to write.

Hi James,


I have no clue how to start a letter to someone I don’t even know, let alone never even met. 

I can’t ask you how you are, but yet I still wonder. Are you okay? Is that what you can call it? Okay? Never mind. It’s just always the sentence people begin with. So I apologise in advance if it was stupid of me to ask.

To be honest, I am not writing to you of my own choice. My friend thought it a smart idea to pick up pen and paper and pour out my heart to a stranger behind bars.

I won’t ask you how you landed where you are, even though I am curious about that. But it isn’t what defines you as a person. I would like to ask you how you handle it, being isolated and away from the rest of the world? Does it feel as lonely as it sounds? Does it feel suffocating? I can barely handle being alone in my house without the demons nagging on my brain, their eerie little voices calling out to me as they try to lure me into their darkness. 

How do you handle it without being consumed by the darkness? 

Well, maybe I watched too many crime movies and prison may not be as horrifying as it sounds, or maybe you’re sharing your cell with someone else. 

But then again, you can still feel lonely in a very crowded room. If my questions are too much or too annoying, just throw this piece of paper away please.

Now to some basics about me. I live in Edinburgh, alone, in a huge house left to me by my parents. I own a bookstore close to the castle, just off the royal mile and I absolutely love it. It’s been mine since I was twenty five. Now I’m almost thirty. I know, I sound super interesting, right? (okay lame attempt at sarcasm.)

I’d love to know more about you, but only if you want to tell me of course.


I read the letter five times before sealing it in an envelope, and addressing it to James at the prison. Geillis is right. What can I lose? I haven’t told him any details about my life, not even my name. But he’ll get your address. Stop it. 


Before my brain can convince me otherwise, I’m standing up to walk to the post box to drop the letter off. I’m taking a deep breath as I turn on my heel to walk back home with my mind full of a thousand thoughts.




Days passed and walking to my postbox became an activity my anxiety seemingly feeds off of. Constantly watching the postman drop off my mail doesn’t help either. Today is no different, except when I grab my letters, one stands out against all the rest. In beautiful, neat handwriting, I see my name. My eyes drift to the sender’s address and Irun inside as I throw the rest of the post on the coffee table and stare at the letter in my hands.


My fingers graze the sharp edges of the envelope as I try to wrap my mind around the fact that this has been touched by someone who is sitting in prison. Someone who is going through hell, closed off from the free world because he’s done it to himself. Someone who might have hurt someone really bad. I shudder at the thought and somehow the letter becomes this dirty figment with the thought of bloody hands grabbing it. Can I do this? What if there is just a disgusting message inside? But would they even be allowed to let letters like that be sent out? The guards must check them. I pay attention to the item in question with shaky hands. I rip open the thin paper as I take out the letter and read my name across the top.


Hello Claire,


For someone who doesn’t know how to write a letter to a stranger, you’ve done very well. 

“I’ll manage” is the term I use when people ask me how I am. 

There are days I even use “alright”, and when your letter came, that was how I felt.

If I tell you why I’m behind bars I’m afraid you wouldn’t want to speak to me anymore, so let’s save this for another time. 

Well I can ask you, how are you, Claire? You said in your letter you feel lonely in your big house, why is that? Is there no one spending time with you? 

I am in fact alone in a cell. Sometimes I think it’s a blessing but mostly it’s just maddening. Sometimes I speak to the walls, wondering if something or someone might hear me. Sometimes I pretend someone does. This must sound very frightening to you.

You can ask me any kind of question. I’ll try my best to answer them. Honestly.

A bookstore sounds nice, I myself am a passionate reader. You might laugh, but Jane Eyre is my favourite. I used to read it with my sister. Very great times. Thinking about them keeps me sane in the dark place that I am.

There’s actually not much to tell about me. I used to work at an insurance firm along with my uncles and godfather until this happened. Now it’s been five years, and I’m thirty one years old.

What’s your favourite book, colour, drink, food? All these questions. But I also would love to know more about you. To end this letter and for you to hopefully address me next time I want to let you know, you may call me Jamie.


I smack my dry lips as I try to get ahold of my tears that are ready to run down my cheeks. I don’t know what I expected but somehow, it wasn’t this. I did not expect someone so…normal? Someone with emotions? Someone so nice? I can’t really put it into words. I’m inhaling a deep, shaky breath before reading it once again and that time, I let my tears fall freely.


While I’m standing in my shop the next day, shelving some books, I stare at the name of Charlotte Bronte and a sudden idea hits me. I grab the book and sit down at the table, pen already meeting paper and before I know it, I’m writing my second letter to Jamie.


Hi Jamie,


Jane Eyre? You have great taste! I was just shelving some books and this copy fell into my hands and I thought you might want to have it. If you already have one, maybe it’s a sign to re-read it.

It warms my heart to know that my letter has made you feel ‘alright’, so I hope that won’t change when this one arrives along with my gift.

I won’t bring up the reason you’re in there until you bring it up yourself.

“Alright” is my description too when someone asks me how I am, and to my surprise, today I’m actually good. 

I used to live with my ex in this big house but he decided he’s better off without me and that is the story I will save for another time.

Talking to walls doesn’t sound frightening to me, it’s something I do too. Quite often actually.

Five years… That must feel like a very long time. Did you love your work? How does your sister deal with you being gone?

My favourite book is Little Women. My favourite colour is green. My favourite drink is wine, red to be more specific, and pasta makes me very happy. What about you?

- Claire


I’m putting the letter into the book and pushing it into an envelope before writing down the address to drop off the little package on my lunch break. I inhale the fresh breeze that dances around me before I smile at the sky. Somehow I feel different. Somehow this whole thing makes me feel different. Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe it’s bad. But despite my racing mind I curl up my lips as I’m thanking the universe that I feel a little less lonely today.