Time management, a key element to living my life, meant nothing now. There had been something in the induction process the night before about routines so I doubt that I needed more than a vague idea of the time as there seemed to be enough pointers and precursors to keep the prison day in motion.
“Cup o’ tea mate?”
I hadn’t noticed that Jim was awake and already considering the start of this new day.
“Uh, yes, please, thanks.”
My voice sounded slurred and sleepy as it bounced back off the brickwork. Moving sluggishly into only a half prone position a physical shudder went through me that I sensed might have appeared over dramatic; Jim didn’t seem to have noticed.
Before I went to bed I had tried to maintain some degree of civility and undressed down to my prison issue boxers and thin tee shirt. Jim however didn’t seem to have removed anything at all; each to their own I guess. The tea was a welcome comfort but as it was too hot to drink I started to sort through my small pile of roughly folded clothes while it cooled.
The items, obviously used, were at least clean and remarkably fresh. In each there were labels that indicated where they had been produced, which appeared to be at several different prisons. Looking at the garments again a little more curious, I was surprised at the quality of them, this must be the modern equivalent of sewing mail sacks I mused to myself.
With some effort and a good sense of balance, I managed to get dressed without getting down off the bunk. Looking round the cell again, now in daylight, I realised that my earlier shiver had probably been caused by the tall window still being wide open. The morning breeze was rather brisk despite the restricted aperture. Being more awake now I remembered having agreed that it could be left open as he, apologetically, couldn’t go through the night without a roll-up which I agreed to if rather begrudgingly; I had not felt emotionally strong enough to disagree at the time. Another snippet floated to the surface from the induction, something about smoking and non-smoking cells, European Human Rights Act, or something but it was too early in my stay to get into all that.
With my now fully dressed legs dangling over the edge of the bunk I contemplated what protocols might be in place to negotiate oneself around the small amount of floor space. Sipping quietly at the mug of tea I thought more about all of it. It, the tea, was hot and strong and the plastic mug reminded me rather of camping although the only problem here was, this was no holiday. The floor, I decided not to try it out for now and just watched and listened to what was going on and in both the immediate and the wider environment.
Outside the door there was plenty of movement but not much that was easily discernible. The jangling of keys and chains was the predominant sound but muffled greetings and stark instructions also echoed off the hard surfaces. Outside the window, I couldn’t hear very much, the rumble of some sort of trolley, occasional heavy footsteps and the heavy bang of a door or gate; they were the best I could visualise.
Inside Jim didn’t seem to have acknowledged the availability of a small sink nor the washing items that he had procured for us the night before. He was sitting on the toilet bowel, not using it for its primary purpose but attempting to blow smoke out of the window, sadly he was failing. Conversation was not one of my strong points at the best of times so I decided to wash instead. Being slightly cleaner, ‘a cat lick’ my Gran’ would have called it, there didn’t seem to be anything else to be done or do for the moment.
With my strange companion still engrossed in his own thoughts, wherever they were taking him, I went back to see what I had to work with amongst my new possessions. It didn’t take long. The first night pack had contained a tooth brush, a small tube of very coarse but minty toothpaste and a tiny cake of white soap of which I had used all three. The smokers’ pack I didn’t get to see as Jim had squirrelled it away before we had settled down for the night. He had been very insistent that, although I didn’t want it, a free supply of ‘burn’ was not something to be given up; apparently, that was my first lesson in prison currency. The other item, the breakfast pack, was just a limited supply of tea bags, sachets of sugar and powdered milk. It was properly known as a drinks pack but it seemed that I had all sorts of things yet to learn. Other than that, there was nothing. Jim suggested another cup of tea and I jumped up on the bunk out of his way to allow him access to the tiny kettle. During the rather awkward attempt at levitation, the back of my very loose jeans caught on the hard metal edge of the bed frame and I scrabbled awkwardly to either not fall or lose my trousers. My embarrassment went unnoticed but once safe I wondered what one could do for a belt in here.
The clothes I had already established were clean, functional but were both badly fitting and just a little worn around the edges. They reminded rather me of things that I had when I was younger, always clean, and practical but with never anything thrown out too early; ‘waste not wants not’. Memories of junior school came to mind for some curious if tenuously linked reason.
The image was of me being about 9 or 10 years old. One afternoon back at home after school I was duly presented with a new jumper. It was not such a great event as knitting was a regular pastime in our house along with all sorts of other handicrafts both recreational and functional. We were not poor, we were not rich but we were very practical. Everyone seemed to have what we needed when we needed it; but not very often before time, what made this item different?
From what I remembered there had been a picture in a magazine, a new type of wool in various bright garish colours and at some point, just in passing, I must have indicated my approval of it in some way. A short time later I was now holding this, the jumper knitted up from it; the latest craze apparently, in colour if not style. With multiple shades of yarn all running into each other that gave, in this case a random and very vague tiger stripe effect in browns, oranges and yellows. The only thing that you could say about it was that it was bright. I loved it. It was very easy to get fed up with the plain and the practical, I had always wanted something different and now I had it. It might have been my love and interest in wildlife that made it appropriate and eventually I would have another one in blues; whale like I had thought to myself. Despite the colour scheme, the fact that the jumper was new was a definite bonus as I had often had to finish off the hand me downs from my older brother or even my sister if I was really unlucky. The whole argument of nature versus nurture might have started for me but, what does a 10-year-old know; if only I had had the gift of foresight.
With what was most likely a misplaced sense of excitement I decided that I would wear the jumper to school the very next day. Although the village where we lived was only small at the time it still had its own school, just one infant and one junior class but that was all it needed. There was no school uniform required until you had to go up to the ‘big school’ but one still had to be smart and practical. It may not have been the very next day but I did sport the new creation one morning and fearlessly entered the playground, bold, proud even but sadly still very much unenlightened.
When the whole school was there it was still only about 30 pupils in total so you would have thought that we were all friends. My part in this complex game of being a child was to stalk around the edges of the fraternity, not ignored or overtly excluded but never quite invited in. My confusion and sensitivities about all this would become clearer with age.
The truth was more that I was excluding myself for some unknown reason rather than the ostracising that I often needed to feel to be the case. School yard politics were difficult and incomprehensible concepts. This hadn’t been helped from the very start by having my older brother charged with taking me into the playground each day. He was four years older than me and so always on the way up to the next school so having a small annoyance like me hanging on behind him which was never going to happen. Although the trauma of starting school has probably clouded my memory I seem to recall that when walking the short distance to the school gate he only held onto me until we were out of sight of the farm gate and I was on my own. It was a similar thing at the middle school although there was no hand holding of course, I did get a very direct unequivocal warning about associating with him or his friends at any stage of the last year that we would have to endure the same spaces in the building or the yard; I didn’t disappoint him.
Even in those very first days in the Infant class, solitary anonymity oddly had its advantages. It didn’t take long to work out that groups often got into more trouble, gangs were definitely a problem waiting to happen and in my naïve simplistic way, I could at least slip in or out of society as I chose where no-one seemed to mind or care. At least during free time, I could content myself in just watching what was going on, who was doing what to whom and then by picking my moments, keeping myself out of trouble. This was my perception of life’s rich pattern anyway which continued in a very unremarkable way for the years leading through to the junior class room. From this point other things were starting to happen which continued to build steadily as we progressed in age and a vague seniority.
Amongst these changes were distinct and sometimes rather obvious. Girls were not quite so ‘giggly’ or ‘screemy’ and they would often huddle together in corners deep in pseudo serious conversation; unsurprisingly they didn’t engage my interest. The boys however were becoming distinctly more interestingly to me; bolder and most noticeably more physical. Football and other games started to take on a rather more serious aspect. Some of the less genteel amongst the lads seemed to be looking for a fight all the time, trying to assert their dominance over the smaller or weaker ones; I felt my own differences but it was nothing like that.
In my semi-enclosed world, there were changes both inside and outside but I decided that it would be best to keep most of that to myself, choosing to watch what was happening around me instead. The activity and even skill of observation had never been more interesting as it was here, even if it was often as confusing as it was an indefinable pleasure. Without any apparent conscious effort, my attentions would be drawn distinctively towards certain individuals more than others. Here I would find myself staring at them although still not understanding why. These events would happen mainly at play times and getting caught out would induce me to ridiculous exaggerated pretences of collecting blackberries from the hedge or trying to catch butterflies, eating grass stalks or other inane things; I don’t think that it was ever a very convincing cover.
On this particular day, the one concerning the new jumper, some of my rather over played beaming pride came not only from the garment itself but some exaggerated belief that we as a family held some sort of standing in the village; I have never really understood it fully but there it was. It was true that ‘we’ ran a successful, long established business; ‘we’ were involved in most of the village and church matters; ‘we’ lived on one of the village farms, one of the smaller ones admittedly but we had fields and barns and a large old farm house; ‘we’ certainly didn’t live in one of the council houses where families constantly came and went; ‘we’ were one of the establishment. If I had been old enough to appreciate my thoughts I should have been horrified at the concept. These rather ill-considered opinions became one of many validations for feeling different to so many of my peers. Having never felt part of anything, being forced together in school did not mean that I would naturally become part of the world at large. The jumper incident would only fuel this disparate separation.
Standing in the playground that morning, with my head held high, I looked around for someone who might have noticed me; or my rather bright new garment. No one did so I set out to choose someone to show it to instead; I soon wished that I hadn’t. Once the one individual had seen it, the comments and gesticulations that ensued made it very clear that it was not the fashion statement that I thought it had been. It very quickly became the laughing point of the morning and I had to retreat to a safe distance with my face red and my ego bruised. When I had managed to calm down a little and become passively invisible once more I slowly slid round the edges of the playground to approached one of the nicer and much safe boys that I might hold up as a friend; blonde hair, sweet face he also didn’t usually join in with things very much either.
“Do you like my new jumper?” I had decided to start the ill-fated process all over again.
Asking a direct question was completely out of character for me and I don’t remember who was more surprised but, at least he was smiling at me, and at it.
“It’s a bit stupid.”
Had I judged it wrong again? Yes, my bubble was well and truly burst. This was not how the conversation had played out in my head only moments before I had opened my mouth. Smashed once more, all that was left was to turn tale and race quickly away my face glowing once more. Rescue thankfully came in the form of the hand bell calling us into class with the said item abandoned in the cloakroom
Class times were always busy and interesting so I didn’t feel any pressure from events until the mid-morning break. It was not very often that I had the opportunity, let alone the nerve or the understanding to interact on a one to one basis and it was a grave disappointment that this now included one of the few boys that I had been able speak with. He gave me suspicious sideways glances and I thought it best that the incident was left to just watching the world from a distance. Rather unkindly during these considerations I tried to convince myself that he was only a farm hand’s son anyway while but deep down I knew that my mock prejudice wouldn’t overshadow my deeper, still undeveloped, inclinations. Needless to say, I didn’t wear the jumper to school again.
Community spirit, what a great thing it is; or so I had heard it might be. Everyone helping where they could, where they should, each knew their role and their place, everyone having their individual expectations and fulfilments. It was such a happy picture but not one I saw myself in very often. However, it was a representation that just occasionally had its defined edges wrinkled; outsiders sometimes invaded the village. One such time affected me more than the others, perhaps it might have been the surge of something peculiarly and powerfully stimulating that happened, down inside some yet undiscovered depths.
A family had moved into one of the cottages a little further up the road from us and they had immediately been labelled as gypsies. Not quite understanding all the fuss I didn’t take too much notice. Logically, to me anyway, they didn’t live in a caravan or have a scraggy old horse or yapping dog although when the children came into school that first morning it became more obvious.
Their outward appearance was enough to have them branded as they had been. Remember that I had no idea about style of fashion but it was easy to tell that the rather portly mother was so obviously, a fortune teller type complete with multi layered, lace edged long skirt, rough woollen shawl and bright head scarf to top off the ensemble. The pitiable children being dragged reluctantly by the hand behind her were something straight out of the pages of Dickens. The giggles from the class were stopped by a loud bang from the teacher’s hand on her desk; we just watched on as they were formally and otherwise silently enrolled. This pause in the general proceedings gave me time for a closer inspection for my own interests.
It appeared that the two were twins but, despite their gender differences you could tell it was probably true but to me there was only one of them that was interesting. He stood out as a perfect unification of all the many and varied aspects of boyhood and I think my heart skipped a beat as his gaze swept around the room at all of us looking back; I looked at him far longer and more intently than most if any.
He was relatively tall but under the rather dishevelled and mismatched outer clothes it was easy to tell that his long thin arms and legs matched the possibility of his torso perfectly. It might well have been from under nourishment but I would have given almost anything to have had a look like his. My daily embarrassment of still carrying ‘baby fat’, as my mother insisted on calling it was something I found difficult to ignore and envious of those who were not so inflicted. My fleeting negative thoughts about myself were easily washed away as I drank in his sharp angular beauty. The long neck with its prominent Adam’s apple held up a face of exquisitely chiselled features and dark deep set eyes all setting off a magnificent crown of mousy hair dramatically barbered into a 30’s style short back and sides. Errol Flynn, eat your heart out. He had a skin tone that almost matched the colour of his beautiful hair but although that might have been attributed to a degree of general dirt, the vision had was having the most profound and disturbing effect on me. Not really understanding any of it, my body reacted autonomously, thankfully hidden under my desk. That sort of involuntary thing was happening more and more and I would have liked to ask more about such things but realistically, the who, when or how was not something to consider here.
Back in the room, I think that my open-mouthed gawking went unnoticed. The mother and girl had provided some further distraction as the younger of the two didn’t see any merits of having to be in school. This obviously differed from the consensus and an argument developed. It catapulted into more of a physical fight which eventually the mother won and the latest begrudging additions to the class were seated. Fortunately, this was well away from me and I could silently savour the thoughts in my head and the feelings in my underwear. The disruption of their arrival was not to be a one-time affair; it became almost a daily routine. The boy would slink quietly in but his sister always had to make an entrance. For me at least school days from then on certainly had a rosier glow.
Although I don’t think that I ever spoke directly to this magnificent new male, it didn’t seem to be a requirement to sustain my interest in him. Unfortunately, for me, he was a footballer proving to be both very fit and good at the game but this meant that I had no chance of being involved with him in any legitimate pastime. In fact, I took every effort not to have my star gazing noticed and I was perhaps fortunate to get caught outright only occasionally; not that he actually seemed to mind when I did. Taking his only slight embarrassment as part of the fantasy that he too might have been more like me, I satisfied myself that he might be just too shy to respond to anything that I might have be thinking. If only I knew what to do, how to react to these feelings, doing anything would have been better than nothing but, that is just what I did, nothing.
The mother, fearsome creature that she was, attended the school more than any other parent that anyone could remember. It became clear that the genetic predisposition to angry outbursts had only been passed on to the one twin. The other in contrast, seemed disproportionately quiet but he also appeared to be more popular because of it. It was a great surprise when, on the way home one afternoon, my ‘crush’ asked me if I wanted to come in and look at his pet pike. If I had been older, or wiser, I might not have been quite as flustered as I found myself. Experience may have also interpreted his invitation with a degree of innuendo but for now, I took the question literally and accepted his curious offer. The terrifying vision of his mother flashing across my mind, disapproving of such an impromptu visit, but in the glow of the glorious moment I didn’t really care and would have said yes to anything that he asked. Following him quietly into the house I was only a little terrified but managed to whisper to him.
“My uncle used to live here,” my mouth was talking but I didn’t feel connected to it, “will your mother mind me coming in?”
Despite knowing that the two statements were not associated I had to start somewhere to learn the complex art of proper conversation.
“Of course not, it’s in the bath, down here in the cellar.”
It would seem that he too hadn’t worked out the subtleties either which made me feel much better.
The cottage had been the village outdoor when my uncle had lived there and I had been a regular visitor for Vimto and crisps. Knowing the layout as I did managing to avoid the kitchen where I assumed the mother was making noise. Slipping silently down the two shallow stone steps that defined the cellar, we found the fish as he had described, in an old tin bath. Having run out of conversation for the moment, I realised that it could have been a pile of dead leaves for all I cared, I had received a direct and very personal invitation from my new passion. It was a very short visit.
It turned out that he hadn’t gotten the permission that he thought that he didn’t need. Once caught out by the figure looming large in the doorway, he got a clip round the ear for his trouble. Staying out of the direct line of fire, all I wanted to do was smooth down the now rather tousled hair to its former glory and offer some form of intimate comfort to my new friend. Concerned for his distress but possibly more for my desire to just touch him, my confusion felt odd, useless even and once again I did nothing; we didn’t go in for all that touching and stuff sort of thing in my family, so I was lost. All I did get was a disquieted ‘see you tomorrow’, he rubbed his own head, smiled a glancing upturn of his rosy mouth in my direction and I was gone. The preposterously large smile on my face was safely locked away for later and well before I got into the ever-busy kitchen at home.
Unfortunately for me there would only be a few more tomorrow’s with. The family moved on. It was all down to the girl, according to the village gossips that is but the preoccupations with their demise was lost amid my confusion at the possibility of having missed something that I never actually had. The relatively brief but markedly significant time had given my inner confidence a bit of a boost. Even now I can relive the vision of his beauty, the magnificent sweep of his hair, the curious exotic shading on his sallow skin and his almost rag-a-muffin but perfect build. The charming recollection could always manage to raise tightness in my pants, if I wanted it to that is. Nobody else needed to know of such things and they never did until now of course.
My new-found confidence was only a slightly better understanding of myself but it, life, was still somewhat of a blur. It didn’t afford me any more opportunity to ‘join in’ but I had changed. In moments of madness, I could be found throwing unsolicited comments into conversations, mostly inappropriate and outlandish. The general outcome of this new-found boldness was to alienate me even more but I took some contentment from at least having found some sort of a voice of my own. One day I decided that I would try out a more practical manifestation to get me noticed and maybe make me finally, ‘one of the boys’.
On that day, during the school lunch break, we were all out in the yard and a rather unfortunately plain, tom-boy of a girl was hanging off the climbing frame having one of her regular rampages at some of the boys. It was nothing very new and no one was really taking much notice.
“I’ll kick your arse’s if you don’t sod off,” although one of her favourite phrases although it had lost its effectiveness from over repetition.
In a moment of unconsidered and complete madness I placed myself behind her and, as she swung back at arm’s length, I reached up with outstretched hands and dragged her thick dark blue knickers, from under the flowing skirt, right down to her knees. The sight of her small, firm but still muscularly flexing buttocks was rather a shock. Not quite knowing what I was expecting to find, a combination of the naked surprise and the overt jeering of everyone looking on to the incident brought screams of embarrassment from the poor victim Sandra. The other boys were all pointing at something that I couldn’t imagine from my rearward vantage but the moment had passed and was regretting the action from the very moment that it happened; the enormity of the moment was incomprehensible.
We were all stunned into silence by the loud banging on the classroom window from inside; our teacher had been watching to see just how far the taunting was going to go but I doubted that she had expected the current vista. As we two turned around to the sound, she was indicating that Sandra and I should get to her classroom, now! The others had quickly scattered in all directions, most still rolling in laughter at the revelation of the secrets within lady’s underwear. All I got was a hard thump on the arm as Sandra pushed past me going into the school room; after first recovering both her dignity and her knickers. Unable to complain, all there was left was to silently take the telling off and accepted the dent in my already unclassified reputation. If we had been a few years older than perhaps the incident might have been viewed more seriously but as it stood, the situation was over.
One positive to come from the incident served to prove the eleventh commandment, ‘Thou shall not get caught’ and that lesson was one well learnt and ever remembered. Once back outside we both got equal ridicule until someone else dragged the spotlight away from us with another disassociated event. The telling off by the teacher was not appreciated and I never again tried to ingratiate myself with the boys; it seemed that I would have to manage without them. Afterwards, eventually, she and I had a sort of unspoken and never referred to something between us, friends from adversity I guessed although it was always more from her than me. Any physical attraction was never clear for me except for the boyish looks but even then, there would always be just something missing.
Watching people, watching things in general was what I became rather good at, being able to see things that I thought others often missed, spotting things that were different and there was always something that needed to be found out, in all the what, where, when and why of life. This thirst for information kept me one step ahead of the day to day drudgery of burgeoning adolescence.
The thought of being a failure at anything was a growing anathema. Obviously, I would not be good at everything but I quickly developed ways of not being found out in ignorance, keeping just far enough ahead or knowing one more thing than anyone else when I needed to. Mostly, as with life in general, these were just little things but I think it was enough to create an illusion to fool most of the people most of the time. It was good enough then and increasing so as I grew up and got much better at it. Behind the possibly misguided illusion, I found a lot of time and opportunity for more covert activities. I also learnt to get away with things that most people might not have been able to and found degrees of pleasure from the thrill that the regime seemed to supply.
When I moved onto far darker experiments in the many other things of life, I somehow always knew that I would eventually get into trouble not that it stopped me; not all the time anyway. Many of these events and circumstances would ultimately prove to be socially and morally unacceptable. Even back in those early teen years, even if I didn’t fully understand them, I knew that my differences would eventually prove to make me too much of a contrast, too different for other people. This made me even more desperate to be in control of whatever it was that might come my way. Here in prison, undercover activity would not be an option; not that I could see anyway. My observational skills had been useful to a point and would hopefully continue to be so.
Having exhausted the morning’s routines, such as they were, Jim had started to rattle off more of his tales of woe but I took little of it in making only what I thought were appropriate noises to keep him going and well away of my own reverie. Noting the increased activity out in the corridor, it wasn’t such a surprise when the flap on the spy hole scratched aside and an eye appeared. It disappeared again before a chain rattled and click went the lock. The door swung heavily inwards.
“10 minutes you two,” it was the same smart crisp uniform but a different, not so attractive face, “get your stuff together and we’ll get you moved across to the wing.”
Surprisingly, the door was only partially closed which left me feeling rather nervous.
Orders, directions and compliance, the life blood of prison life. No discussion required or accepted and simple acquiescence seemed to make for a nice smooth operation. Following Jim’s lead in the preparation of our kits we were soon ready for whatever was coming next; his bed roll of various materials was neater than mine but it seemed to serve its purpose. Shaking my collection, nothing seemed ready to fall out and we stood silently waiting by the door again. Jim mumbled to himself occasionally but I was not required for his rather personal exchange of views. The ten minutes stretched out to much longer but that was something else that was to become normal. The door was eventually opened.
“You first Mr. Mulligan.”
Realising that I had forgotten the guy’s last name, even if I ever knew it in the first place, my brain was rather unkindly telling me that we were hardly likely to be best friends; although so far, he was the closest I had in here.
“Yes sir,” Jim answered smartly in response to the authority and in a rather different tone to his earlier remonstrating.
“I’ll be back for you Rollason, just sit still for a bit.”
The deflation from having being poised and ready to move made me realise that I had not yet got the hang of when and if one should rely on anything anymore. Slumping back onto the bare bunk, the rather uncomfortable feeling of being alone loomed yet again with little else to distract me this time.
The architecture was still on the whole in its original Victorian state, layers of paint couldn’t hide its age or abuse with marker pen, lighter and gouge. The modern sanitary upgrades, stainless steel seat-less toilet bowl and small hand basin did nothing to make it look or feel any better. The sanitation and washing facilities were less than ten years old and there would be many tales of horror to be told of the earlier regime by long term and frequent inmates. The information would be fascinating but the stories of slopping out buckets, the rags instead of paper, shit parcels thrown out of the windows, the generally undignified regimes created an unpleasant picture of what was a modern day dark ages.
My time to move came eventually. Now on my own, I had to concentrate to pick up the visual clues as well as any verbal ones to fit into the ordered process. The door had been fully locked after Jim had been taken and the short delay of the more familiar opening routine would prove to always give you that few moments of notice. Followed the swing of the officer’s head I pressed past him and stood outside on the wing landing.
“Prisoner off the wing.”
He had shouted out to no one that I could see, but it received a reply from somewhere down in the congested space.
My perception was that I had the carefully prescribed prisoner movement almost off pat despite my new status. By the time we had gone through several doors and gates to move off the wing, I was quite pleased with myself as we moved outside and through a number of different high fenced compounds and walk ways. The system I had decided was to stay close to the officer but not too close to be intimidating. Don’t assume where you’re going to go but wait to be directed. Start and stop without being told to. Give way to other officers and in my case, give way to other main stream prisoners without confrontation; the last part I decided may have been for having been granted VP status. It was easy to understand that it was not my place to speak before being spoken to but it took me by surprise when my escort did eventually speak to me.
“This your first time?”
The file in his hand would have told him that it was, so I hoped he was just trying to be helpful; I still didn’t think I needed to speak back to him, nor it seems did he.
“Just keep your head down, do as the officers tell you and don’t go looking for trouble that would be my advice and if you take it, you’ll be fine.”
The rather obviously rehearsed speech was still comforting in its small way, my only hope being that he might have meant what he said.
It’s strange the things you remember, but interestingly I noticed that as we passed other officers they always addressed each other as either Mr or Miss plus their surnames whereas we prisoners were just a surname and then only when required. Experience would show that if, as a prisoner, you had a Mr. added to your name it often meant that you were in trouble for something.
Feeling a little calmer now, I started to notice just how much movement there was going on throughout the estate including groups of prisoners as well as single inmates, each with a warder either in front or behind. They were mostly wheeling trolleys some stacked with black bin bags and cardboard boxes, others had what looked like laundry. Stainless steel cabinets which I presumed might be heated for food perhaps were also heading here and there. My curiosity was starting to be noticed and in some cases reciprocated but the chill glares from other prisoners were not of camaraderie so my gaze reverted to watching where we were going. Any evaluation of the other prisoners would have to wait until I was much safer both physically and mentally.
Instead of looking at people I took in the prison estate as we passed amongst it. From outside the main walls the whole prison looked quite small in area but now inside, it seemed to go on for miles. The number of dividing fencing was mildly interesting, all the same height, razor wire loops on their tops, lights, camera and other as yet unknown devices. Gateways through them were also standardised, heavy, tubular steel. Each cell block that we passed seemed to have its own fenced off area adjacent but part of it. Other smaller compounds were dotted about and held trolleys some of which were piled up with rubbish bags, old mattresses and broken down boxes. It was hardly fascinating material but it passed the time more quickly, either that or I was better at moving with my gaoler through the various obstacles. My still ill-fitting jeans were only just hanging onto my hips. Having no belt to help them stay up and the awkward bed roll under one arm, walking was starting to be rather inelegant; maintaining a little dignity would have to be given up as an impossibility; no one else seemed to mind.
The cell blocks, or wings as they were properly called, took a dramatic change in their design and build quality once we were about what I thought might be a third of the way across the estate. From the elegant curving if austere Victorian style, they changed to a more modern, solid, square design. Still build from the distinctive red brick with light stone coloured corner blocks and window frames but of a more modern design. From a plaque, high up on one of the walls, I could read that they had only been opened about 4 years before.
Each was designated by a letter painted on a large board also high up and in clear view. We were now approaching one with a ‘P’ on it and from the general direction that we were going; it seemed to be our destination. Once inside one of the smaller compounds my assumption was confirmed.
Looking at the other buildings and their signage I had expecting some reference to it being the VP wing other than the ‘P’ but it seemed that each wing had just one letter of the alphabet as its designation and ‘P’ was nothing to do with it at all. The steel gates and heavy door were painted in the standard regulation rich dark blue but this was showing signs of heavy use even after these relatively few years. Having not spoken any further, we went through the double door and gate procedure once more and were now inside.
Taking my first impressions, it was impossible not to look directly upwards to the considerable height of the roof. The difference to the previous night’s accommodation was startling. The bright and airy space seemed inconsistent with the concept of prison. It was four floors high, each of the upper levels having its own walkway but open to the central area. Above the fourth floor there was a glass roofed atrium, I could hardly see the top from where I waited for the outer door to be locked but resisted to urge to wander further and get a better look. There were rows of steel doors along each side of each floor but the space between and facing them was huge. Suicide netting was strung across each of the upper floors between the walkways but beneath them across the ground floor there were pool tables, three I think, a table tennis table folded away against another wall and several tall plain wooden tables and stools dotted along the length of the space. There was more to see right at the far end but I didn’t have time to take it all in; it was too far away anyway. The officer shouted something that reverberated around the hard, smooth surfaces but it was not for me and anyway I wasn’t actually listening.
One thing that was noticeable was how quiet the wing was; except for the earlier shout. There were a few people milling about, all of them dressed in the same green overalls that I had seen the previous night and obviously also workers of some kind. More noticeable was the lack of uniformed officers which did seem a little odd. The workers didn’t pay any real attention as I followed my officer up one of the two wide steel stairways; there was one at each end of the wing. We went up to the third floor and down one of the landings along the full length to a more open floor space.
“Wait here while I get you booked in,” I did.
Although he didn’t indicate if I was to sit or stand I perched halfway on one of the high stools and put my bed roll on the table next to it. At the back of the space and to one side was another barred gate with the rest of the wall consisting of a row of mirrors. The officer let himself through the gate and disappeared behind the closed door. Common sense would dictate that the mirrored panes of glass were windows and it was where the officers must be looking out from as an alternative to walking about unnecessarily on the wing itself. It was difficult not to stare while pondering the possibility, but I prudently turned away to look down the wing instead.
The light that seemed to fill every corner of the wing came not only from the high glass roof panels but the full height cathedral style window in the end wall where we had come in; a cathedral to incarceration, I smiled at the thought. You couldn’t tell from the ground floor just how tall the window was and even with the heavy mesh that covered it, the amount of daylight that flooded in was amazing. The glass roof had no apparent security measures but it was about 15 or 20 feet above the upper floors walkway so safe enough you would think. A large extractor fan about halfway down spun slowly in its housing creating a flicker effect on the wire mesh of the catch nets below it. Focussing my eyes through the layers, it was a long way down, even from here on the third floor.
A quiet noise caught my attention. One of the green clad workers was gradually approaching my seat. Not knowing what I should do but opting for nothing, I waited. He was operating what seemed to be a mechanical floor cleaning machine hence his slow approach. It seemed to wash, dry and polish the floor all in one pass and he didn’t look like stopping as he and it headed straight for me.
“Shift that lot will you,” the operator nodded grimly in the direction of the table and stools.
It didn’t sound like a request and not knowing either prison protocol or his personal status, I took it as an instruction just to be safe. After dragging the heavy table as best I could without spilling my bed roll onto the floor, the stool slipped easily to join it. The cleaning operation continued past me, spinning round at the wall, and heading off again down the length of the landing. Again, trying not to be too obvious I did notice how clean all the floors were, washed or not. This could be applied to the walls as well and as I looked around almost every surface had a gloss finish and everything was so very tidy, nothing extraneous on the floors or outside of the confinement of the notice boards spaced around the walls. For some obscure reason, it was impressive in its simplicity.
Trying not to make any direct eye contact I watched as some of the workers below seemed to have open access to cells whereas most of the others were closed and presumably locked. A recollection of stories about 23 hours a day lock-up sprung to mind so this freedom must indicate some type of privilege perhaps; there was going to be lots for me to learn. Other workers on the ground floor were bagging things up what looked like clothes and towels. The odd worker however was not doing anything, just leaning in a cell doorway drinking from steaming cups of some sort of hot drink and chatting quietly to other inmates; the observation lost its interest with the feeling that I could do with something to drink myself.
The gate behind me was opened noisily but clanged shut. My escort indicated with a wave of the file in his hand that I follow him again. It was my file, you could tell from that terrible photograph on the front plus another copy of it on an oblong card clipped next to it. We went down the steel stairway nearest to us, all the way back to the ground floor. Some of the workers addressed the officer in general greetings, ‘Good morning Mr. Cartwright, are you well Mr Cartwright’ to each he nodded a silent reply but we kept walking. The food chain was starting to become clearer, I was at the bottom obviously, the workers were further up but a uniform trumped the pack.
On the way down I spotted some of the seemingly missing officers, there was one on alternate floors only, each was sitting reading a newspaper and only casually looking up to watch the wing and as we passed by them.
“New one for the ones Mr Preston,” my escort threw out the comment without breaking his stride as we passed one of the officers who had an extra pip on his shoulder.
“Thank you Mr Cartwright, carry on.”
“Have you seen Mr Haliday?” he added belatedly.
“Up on the fours I think Mr Preston.”
We all craned our necks upwards in unison; what made me join in I don’t really know. The exchange happened without pause in our progress and there were no further pleasantries to anyone else.
We eventually reached the ground floor, the ‘ones’ as they were called. My file was rechecked and we walked to a spot halfway down on the left-hand side. A number 20 was emblazoned above the door. The file was checked yet again and presumably being correct, the card was taken off and slipped into a holder to the left of the door above another that was already placed there. I could now see that the card had my picture, my name, my status, a large felt pen written ‘R’, presumably for being on remand and my date of birth. The word ‘Standard’ was scribbled below that but it meant nothing to me. The other card in the rack had similar information plus a few other undecipherable entries, the picture and details were obviously all different to mine.
“Here you are then, you’re two’d up with Mr Patterson,” I was still picking up the lingo and so didn’t ask what two’d up was, “he’s OK really and I’m sure will tell you everything that you need to know. Someone will be along at some point to tell you some more about how things work and fill in any gaps,” he was unlocking the door as he spoke.
Having ventured the civility cautiously I was not admonished for it so that must have been OK. It was the first thing I had said for quite some time and my voice sounded strange as it echoed back to me; I didn’t say anything more.
“A new mate for you Dave.”
Directed into the now open cell, the observation was to the other prisoner, perhaps just a coincidence his name was the same as mine? I had to squeeze past the officer as he was obviously not going to let go of the door handle. Gathering myself and my things into as small a package as I could, I slid past him. The protocol for holding onto door handles had already been noted and it seemed a reasonable if awkward security measure. The door immediately swung closed once I had passed through it and the lock clicked solidly into place. A rattle at the small rectangular viewing window meant that we received a quick once-over and the flap snapped closed. I was home.