The letter was delivered with his breakfast Monday morning. An envelope, thick with official business, with his name on it, was pushed through the gap at the base of the bars with his breakfast tray. He stirred from his sleeping mat when he heard the familiar clatter and slid across to the dish. He pulled it near to himself as he blinked away the last traces of restless sleep, like he did every morning since his incarceration in Changi Prison.
He shook the last of restless sleep from his eyes and was reaching for the stale roll next to the porridge when he saw the envelope sitting on the platter. His hand froze, and his whole body seemed to tighten. They’d said the date was randomly chosen. This couldn’t possibly be it, he thought, because it had only been two weeks.
Gathering his courage, he took a deep breath and cracked open the envelope. The heavy stationary crumpled under his fingers, and he eagerly extracted the note inside. He fixated on words and symbols at first without comprehension, struggling to find meaning, hope, in a message he dreaded reading.
“No,” he whispered, “Oh god, no…”
In four different languages, it said that Thomas William Hiddleston would be hanged that Friday, at 6am, for the crime of drug trafficking. It listed the date he was found guilty and the date of his arrest, with an official seal pressed into the lower right hand corner next to a judge’s signature.
It also informed him of the allowances he would have during the week – he would be entitled to a TV or radio, meals of his choice, and the time he was allowed for visitation with family members would increase from twenty minutes to four hours.
Tom let it fall loosely from his fingers, onto the cold cement between his legs, breath catching in his chest.
He just wasn’t…feeling it.
This was odd, because he was someone who once made a living feeling things he didn’t feel, or getting other people to believe he was feeling things he wasn’t feeling.
He should have been banging on the walls, grabbing at the bars and screaming…instead, he just sat there and stared, because it felt unreal. Overwhelmed tears formed at the corners of his eyes, and threatened to tear him down then and there, sobbing hopelessly into his arms like a child. He was caught between too many emotions, though, and none of them ever reached beyond the tangle in his gut. Numbness spread from the center of his chest – the same kind of artificial warmth he felt after drinking hard liquor.
As soon as the appeal failed, he’d known this day was coming. By law, the date was not set at trial, and was instead revealed later. Every day, he waited. When it didn’t come the first day or the second or the third, he relaxed, tricked himself into thinking he had a month. Then he tricked himself into thinking he had two months. Then, maybe, in that period of time, the sentence would be overturned. His sister, Sarah, could get a high ranking bureaucrat to look at the evidence again, or the British ambassador would cut a deal with the Singaporean government. All of those feeble hopes, those possibilities, narrowed to a finite point and severed in his mind. All he could see was 6am on Friday.
His heart sank when he realized his mother, father, and sisters must have been informed Thursday or Friday of the week before he was, and he couldn’t imagine what they were going through. Sarah, who had been at his side from the very beginning, left that morning to meet with a journalist in Queenstown. She must have missed her hotel mail before she left. Either that or she did receive the notice, and it only inspired her to redouble her efforts.
Sarah would be back on Wednesday morning. He calmed himself with the thought that his parents would have received the notification, and would probably be flying in to Changi immediately. It would be torture to see his mother and father, not be able to touch or hug them, but he was gladdened when he thought of seeing them again. The reality hadn’t quite sunken in that a few spare hours would be all he had with them. One always thought they would have forever with the people they loved, or some huge amount of time that might as well have been forever. There was the expectation that he would be able to share his life with his friends and family. The possibility of loss, of death, was always there, but it was expected to be either sudden or petered out over a length of time – immediate or terminal. Either a sudden, irreplaceable gap, or a long process full of goodbyes with uncertain outcome. The anxiety created by being able to count the hours, to know the exact date and time of death and being helpless to do anything about it, was maddening.
The idea that he could count the hours he had left made him dizzy. Counting Wednesday, when Sarah arrived, he would have twelve hours of visitation. He had three more full days to live, and he could not share even one of those with the people he loved most. His mind started spinning out of control, logging what he had with what he could have had – twelve hours contrasted with days, weeks, months, years.
He requested tea when the prison guard came back, and showed the letter proving his date of execution. There was nothing else that seemed appetizing enough to overcome the flat heaviness in his stomach. He’d try to ask for beer later maybe. For now, all he wanted was tea.
He went through the rest of the day in a dull haze, fixating on the minor tasks and comforts they allowed him. Twice a week, he was given the opportunity to brush his teeth, wash, and shave out of a bucket and a washbasin he could barely fit into to bathe. That increased to every day now that he had his date. A permanent layer of grease seemed to have settled over every part of his body, and it wouldn’t matter, but he wanted to feel human again. He scrubbed until his skin was raw, grateful for the soap and the water to rinse in. He shaved with a dull razor that never left the line of sight of the guard. When he was done, he dressed back into his light grey jumpsuit. His skin felt hot, almost sunburned, and his face itched. Still, he felt better than he had in a while.
He was now entitled to have a TV or radio set up outside of his cell. Tom wanted to watch TV; he wanted nothing more than to be taken in by an actor or a writer or cinematography. Then he remembered that his case was creating something of an international sensation. There would be interviews going on, clips of the movies and TV shows he’d been shown in. That wasn’t something he was ready for yet. When the guards came to bring him out to the exercise yard, he asked for a radio.
The chains around his ankles were removed so he could run around the small yard. Running without being able to swing his arms was difficult, but he managed for the sense of freedom that jogging gave him, something he was in short supply of. The other condemned prisoner who shared Tom’s time slot merely sat on an old bench and studied a flock of birds that flew overhead. Tom then went over to the pull up bar (little more than a bent piece of pipe), where he did the rest of his routine to keep his muscles toned. Pushups, pull ups, lunges, and dips for rapid thirty second intervals left him delightfully sore.
After the training he’d done for the role of Loki, exercise became a mantra for him. As an actor, he needed to stay fit, and it was always part of his routine. The intense training he did for the first Thor movie left him with such an ingrained sense of physical exertion that he now felt wrong if he missed a day. Throughout the entire ordeal, he would have gone mad without the opportunity to work out twice a day.
By the time he returned, a small, old fashioned black radio was resting in the center of his cell. Immediately he began tinkering and playing with the knobs until he urged the first crackle from the speakers.
He listened to a Chinese language station on Singaporean radio. He could speak a little Chinese, learned mostly from other inmates. After being moved to death row, and the isolation therein, he didn’t have anyone to talk to. Something about the rhythm and beat of the language was familiar now, even without understanding everything that was said. He listened to what felt like an endless slough of pop songs, resting on the mat in his cell, closing his eyes, and doing his best to lose himself in them.
He requested dinner with rice, meat, and beer. None of the components were high quality, but it was within the prison’s budget, and the closest thing to real food he’d seen in a very long time. The meal tasted good enough that he was able to down it despite his anxiety. When the chicken felt too dry, he drowned it with beer. For the first time in months, he was left with a warm, happy feeling in his stomach, a temporary physical aloe to the storm of uncertainty.
After dinner, he went back to fiddling with the radio.
He could change the channels. Reception wasn’t stellar, but he found one English station with a multitude of classics from the 60s onward.
He let himself drift away in the chords and clear vocals; closing his eyes, he tried to visualize the sound waves and soothe the pounding in his chest.
The day went on. Sometime after lights-out, when he needed to turn off the radio, he curled around his knees and cried silently into the mat, not allowing himself audible sobs. The people next to him could probably hear the subtle shift in his breath, and it was a common enough sight on death row that little was probably thought of it. He fell asleep exhausted and pained. Next morning, he would wake up with his eyes stinging, the batteries on the radio having run out, and to the reality of his death writ sitting, neatly folded, in a corner of his cell.