For such a small physical space there was just too much to take in all at once.
“Hi, I’m Dave.”
The guy was stretched out on the lower of the two bunk beds. He was thin but from what I could tell not in a pleasant way. He was surrounded by and partially covered in, a collection of what I can accurately only describe as ‘stuff’. It was impossible to make out what most of it was but the vain attempt to do so, combined with my having trouble placing the strange accent, which seemed to be somewhere between Black Country, Patois and Southern Irish not that it mattered in that moment. My reply was delayed enough to make it sound more like an afterthought than a civilised answer.
“Sorry, me too.”
Feeling a little embarrassed at this I wasn’t helped by not knowing quite where to look first. The situation was made only marginally better by not being able to look directly at his face as it was partially hidden under the overhanging top bunk.
“Yow will ‘ave to tec top bunk I cor do it, I cor walk see,” the pleasantries were obviously over.
Still trying to interpret his dialect trying to understand what he meant, I managed an ‘OK’ under my breath. There was a whooshing sound on the other side of the door which make me look round involuntarily; an image of the floor washer came to me and my momentary increased heart rate slowed once more. The distraction also broke the impasse in the previous attempt at conversation and gave me the opportunity to take in more of our accommodation.
There was still just too much to comprehend in one sweep so I dealt with only the principal elements first. One of these was an odious almost visible film in the air; it was more accurately a vile stench. The sweet tang of fresh male sweat could be quite invigorating, stimulating even under certain circumstances but this, this was very stale and no longer a thing of beauty at all. Dave must have noticed my acquisition of the smell and jumped in before I might say anything about it.
“Sorry ‘bout the mess,” I didn’t hear any sincerity in the tone, “I cor walk see.”
It was obvious that he wanted me to understand the fact that he couldn’t walk; obviously, a standard play to excuse all manner of things I expected even before they happened.
Sensing that something needed to happen, he made some tentative movement to move some of the things that lay around him but it did nothing for the general appearance of the place. The top bunk was thankfully clear of ‘stuff’, more than likely because he couldn’t reach it and I made a move to secure my things on it.
“Gie us a minute and I’ll mech yow some space.”
He was panting as he spoke, already out of breath despite not having moved very much.
“Don’t worry, I’ll give you a hand in a minute.”
It came out without thought being just my nature to be helpful; maybe something to watch out for.
Recalling the previous night and my unlikely companion who had lived on the streets for years, Jim had seemed unnaturally tidy in his surroundings, a stark contrast to the here and now. Dave continued to shuffle his things about, those within arm’s length anyway but I had to stand back mentally and physically not wanting to touch anything for the time being or at all if I could help it. So as not to stare at his pitiful uselessness, I took in the rest of the cell instead.
The only thing that I could see in common with last night’s accommodation was the colour of the walls, cream gloss paint; well I’m sure it was cream when it originally went on. The volume of this space was much larger, wider, taller, square corners, no arches. The window was a definite improvement and was huge in comparison, despite the thick metal bars set into it. These were set in-between two sheets of what I thought was glass but the random scratched and burnt markings suggested that it was probably Plexiglas or similar. Just the size made its material irrelevant. There were no opening options that I could see but even that didn’t detract from the wide-open view it gave. Once I had a closer look, past the bars, it was rather more disappointing and more than I had first anticipated.
Outside there was what seemed to be one of the exercise yards, this, as were all the others I had seen, was surrounded by the standard 20 feet high mesh fence topped with razor wire. It was quite a large area and on the far side it was possible to see past the fence to a mirror of it. Another building, ‘L’ wing stood on the far side of that; the symmetry of the planning was lost within the environment. Moving carefully closer for a better look, this closest yard, presumably ours, had another block to the one side as part of an L shaped arrangement with this one. Its sign denoted it as ‘N’ wing and seemed to share the immediate space with us. My inquisitive attention also spotted that the bright sunlight of the day was sliding across only the very far corner of the yard, it was still only mid-morning; note to self, an afternoon might be better choice for getting a tan. We would of course have no such choice.
Turning reluctantly back to the clutter behind me, I couldn’t see any difference despite all the surreptitious shuffling and sighing that had gone on behind me. My own sad sigh must have been louder than I had meant it to be and the fumbling was made more frantic but equally pointless.
Leaning with my back against the window I had the full panorama of the cell. The two bunks were of an interesting construction. They were actually just two shelves; the bottom one I couldn’t tell what it was made of but seemed to be standing on a narrow pedestal at one end and bolted to the wall at the other. The upper one was just bolted to the wall on the one side seemingly suspended in mid-air. It was in fact a one-piece metal tray with turned up edges presumably to stop you or your bedding falling off. It was finished in reasonably matching cream colour enamel. There were strange upright metal steps at each end of the arrangement but they didn’t seem very practical, we would have to wait and see. The lower bunk presumably didn’t have the lip of the upper one as I could see that the ‘stuff’ was starting to fall to the floor during the rather half-hearted struggle to move it. Dave spotted that I was looking at him and it.
“I’ll sort me things und yow can tech they shelves by the winda.”
Still only just understanding what he was on about I became conscious of drawing attention to his accent by any overt attention or facial reaction. Resisting the urge to keep saying ‘pardon’ I contented myself with a mock interest in all the mess instead. With little progress being made evident, I decided that it would need me to just get on and do it. That would be my second mistake of the day.
Opposite the bunks, two thirds of the wall space was taken up by a combination table, storage and shelf units. They were constructed from very thick and heavy looking Formica covered material and finished in tasteful white with grey accents. Grey mock granite kitchen worktop had been used for the bench type table. Being only about half the width of a standard kitchen worktop it became obvious that you couldn’t have fitted a full width version in the rather narrow space. Running perpendicular to the window it was fixed to the wall by some invisible method, as were the shelf units attached to the end of it. These ran from floor to ceiling with four, deep, pigeon holes with no doors, each one of these currently had something either in or half hanging from it. I could imagine how the higher ones had things just thrown at them presumably as ‘he couldn’t walk’; I made no comment.
“Shall I have the top shelves then?” It was a rhetorical question.
“Yam could if yow wants,” not that his confirmation actually mattered, “jus’ pass the things dowen, I’ll sort um out.”
He was going to have to do a lot of this sorting out as I began to pass down the towel, jumpers, blankets, papers, magazines, packets of foodstuffs, bottles of water and anything else that was mixed in with it all. Having started with just one item at a time it was going to take too long so I took a deep breath and grabbed an armful and dropping it rather unceremoniously onto the bunk where his feet could have been. He would have to do something with it now. The lower shelf spaces hung onto their clutter, they were not my problem.
“Ay yow had a drink this mornin’?” I wasn’t expecting the enquiry and didn’t think before answering.
“No, there wasn’t time before they bought me over from the other wing.”
“Do yow want un?”
“I guess so,” really thinking that it would have been better to do just one job at a time.
“If yow can put kettle on I’ll make us one,” it seemed that his assertion that he ‘cor walk’ didn’t apply to tea making.
This would be my third mistake.
My idea was not to make the drink but continue with sorting things out so I could at least have the outward appearance of being settled. Torn between thirst and being organised, I took a moment to look round for a few moments to work out if there were any obvious logistics for tea production. The cursory glance at the work-top cum table showed another horror in full progress but, since it had been mentioned, my parched throat indicated that it wanted a drink. To this end, I could see nothing that seemed to be clean.
“Shall I do some washing up first,” it was again rhetorical.
“If yow wana, I just swill um inter sink.”
That was obviously true. His comment took my eye to the other end of the cell by the door and I started to contemplate the limited washing facilities and the toilet.
This corner of the cell had the wall in some sort of a boxed off arrangement not fully square, with one side of it angled away from the door. The space between the end of the shelves and this intrusion into the area had the toilet set against it. There was no stainless pan arrangement as before but what I could only describe as a box with a hole in the top; fortunately, it wasn’t quite as bad as one might first picture. The enclosure was made from white Formica material and the toilet bowel inside it was also white and appeared to be plastic although I wasn’t ready to give it a very close inspection just yet. It seemed primitive but hopefully practical. A tiny hand basin which had once been white was attached to the angled part of the wall next to the toilet box. They were simple but functional facilities taking into consideration where we were. It did strike me that the toilet was very open to view from almost anywhere in the cell and even from the outside through the window. The lower side of the shelves was made slightly wider to be partly in-front of it and perhaps deliberately designed to create a suggestion of being able to screen a sitting occupant. It was not going to be any good if you were shy, that much was certain.
One thing that had struck me about all the fixtures and fittings, other than their substantial construction, nothing seemed to have any sharp corners, there were also no hooks, no holes, nothing sticking out, nothing anywhere of that kind that I could see. Even the toilet flush and what were presumably the taps above the hand basin were only push buttons set flat into the wall’s surface. The design feature was nothing to dwell on for the time being other than just a passing observation but the matter would come to have a more interesting significance that I would come across later during my stay.
Back to that possibility of a hot drink. Having decided that it was the only thing I could do that didn’t involve touching his things, my attention was once more focused on the task. It was either that or sit around waiting for some substantial if unlikely effort on his behalf to materialise. My normally limitless patience was not going to work for me at this point.
“Is there hot water in the tap?”
The question was not rhetorical this time. It was such a simple question that you might have hoped for a simple answer. Unfortunately, it came with a lengthy explanation of some of the wider shortcomings of prison life which, on this matter could have been summarised in a one word answer, ‘probably’. By the time he had finished delivering the lecture I had actually found the answer for myself and was then looking for some cleaning materials.
“Do we have anything to actually wash things?”
Again, it was a real question. Regrettably, it instigated yet another tedious explanation of the limitations and privations that we ‘poor prisoners’ had to endure. The only interesting thing to come out of the protracted mutterings was the story of why there were no specific cleaning things in the cells anymore. Apparently bleach tablets for the toilets had been used for suicide attempts, as had the washing up the liquid that we no longer had access to; I hadn’t seriously considered the darker side of prison life yet but the confirmation that it did go on, once voiced the harsh reality seemed rather more acute. My body shuddered; it was doing a lot of that lately and I decided to move us off the subject. Dave was taking too much pleasure in other people’s problems for my liking and it perhaps told me something of his philosophies on life. My attentions turned to the work-top and its contents.
To even consider a simple thing like a cup of tea, one first need the tools to make it. Moving a few things to one side I found a small kettle, just a two-mug capacity by the look of it rather like the ones you would take to Spain on your holidays. Scattered around it, beneath some old newspapers were both full and empty sachets of sugar and milk along with some dubious looking dried up tea bags. All this was just sitting around with the other extraneous detritus even though a grey plastic bin below the table was virtually empty. Prison or not, I was not impressed and certainly didn’t consider re-using the tea bags. Before we could go any further I had to tidy up.
Unplugging the kettle its badly stained outside received a good wipe down with clean water in the sink, I tried my best not to get the electrics too wet and used my clean hand towel to dry it as best I could before putting safely on my clear and hopefully cleaner bunk.
“Yow can just rinse this un out.”
He handed me what had once been a pale blue plastic mug. You would hardly recognise it to be like the one I had, this one had so many thick brown stains crusted inside and out, my face must have spoken for me.
“Yow cor clean nowt propa in ere.”
This prompted a repeat of the saga around the cleaning issues. I was beginning to work out that with Dave, repetition would be a staple diet. Taking the proffered vessel in just my fingertips it was dropped into the sink to soak.
“I’ll have a go at it later.”
After removing some more things from the work-top I began to see the actual surface but it was no cleaner than anything else I had come across.
“Yow can use the J Cloth from theyer if yow wana.”
Following his wavering hand, I spied a once blue, now grey limp rag in the corner next to the toilet bowl; I didn’t think that I would be using that item any time soon.
With just his vocal instructions but no practical help, it was confirmation that I had fallen well and truly for his stratagem of doing as little as he could but, as I would be the beneficiary in this effort, I carried on.
Trying not to make any preconceptions about how I might feel towards other people in here was becoming difficult. Jim had been the first and I had been surprised with how I felt, indifference if I was honest but I was not going to live with him. The others in the system were so far anonymous so irrelevant. Here, with the possibility of a longer association, I was rather more aggravated at the prospect. The feeling had been created in such a short time and it was not like me to be quite so judgemental; I was quite disappointed in myself, not that I wanted to admit it of course.
Pulling myself back together I quickly decided that I had little choice in matters for the time being so there was no sense in getting wound up about them. Taking a deep breath both inside and out, I cleaned what I could with a vengeance. It was as much my home as anyone’s so for now at least and I would have it the best that I could; despite other people’s shortcomings. My new-found enthusiasm must have been more than obvious and it served to gee up the prone remnant still floundering in his pit. He sat up a little more and made some real effort to tidy things around him.
As he cleared off the top of his bunk and uncovered his actual person, I could see just how frail and dishevelled he really was. My conscience was pricked a little when he dragged a blanket from off a wheelchair that I hadn’t noticed before. Feeling rather desultory for just a fleeting moment, my mind wondered if he might be going for the sympathy vote once more.
“Yow can stack some of then things on’t chair if it bay easier.”
“OK I might have to,” I said but quickly changed it to you might have to, “you can carry on with your things while I get us that drink.”
The sarcasm and sympathy that I had fitted into one sentence didn’t go unnoticed but only I smiled to myself.
After some little while I had used up two of his spare but clean towels, several sinks of warm water and hey presto, we had a table that you could use; although I wouldn’t say eat your dinner off. My shelves were also ready to put things on; when I had things that is. We even had relatively clean mugs, plates and some cutlery that had also been found amongst the chaos. Dave had at least consolidated most of his ‘stuff’ and it was now possible to see more of the floor as well. That was another cleaning issue but I didn’t want to tackle it just now. Hadn’t we done well?
It was only after the first round of cleaning work did I revert to the original plan and make us a drink. My throat was even more parched but my fleeting consideration of waiting for him to do it, as he had originally suggested, seemed to be an unlikely event; the expenditure of all that energy must have worn him out.
“Do you have any more tea bags, I think they must have gotten thrown away while I was cleaning,” I knew that they had of course.
“Have a look on yow shelf theyer,” he indicated the steps that he had generously decided would be mine.
Visually rummaging through the various boxes and plastic bags I found three clean tea bags, some sugar and milk sachets although I personally didn’t need them, my guess was that he would.
“Yow can tec a lend of tae ‘til yow get yower owern,” I didn’t respond to the common misuse of the lend borrow conundrum.
While I was searching, there were other items on the steps cum shelves that I took greater note of. Several boxes of medication that looked mainly like tablets, some medicated mouthwash, a sticking plaster, some wrinkled fruit, a couple of pens and a partly eaten packet of biscuits. The medication might have enlightened me to some of his personal difficulties, but again, it was not a subject for now.
Having eventually managed the tea with some difficulty, no doubt practice would make perfect; the general restrictions associated with camping came to mind during the task. My drink was left to cool by the window as I next made the effort to assemble my bunk as it didn’t seem right not having that tidy now I had done something with most of the shared space.
The one marvellous thing that I found on the table was the television. It was only a small portable model, no remote control that I could see but the cell was wide, or rather narrow enough to be able to reach the control buttons while sitting on the bunk. It took up at least one third of the work top but even this loss of valuable flat space would most likely be worth it. Feeling more than pleased with the discovery, it meant that my love of television would also be a welcome distraction from whatever joy my companion might bring to the feast. My positive comments on it invited the obligatory saga that accompanied this new matter, but didn’t everything it seemed.
Apparently, we didn’t have the television by right; it was a ‘privilege’. Having already decided that not everything my ‘pad mate’, as we were affectionately known, would be accurate I would wait to work out its provenance on my own. When I did it seemed that we had to pay 50p per week each for it, how this was to be achieved I had no idea but I didn’t encourage any wider explanation. I did have to listen to how there were only five channels, the picture was crap and the films they put on were never any good either. The matter of channels didn’t bother me and I didn’t feel a clarification about films would be worth it for the moment either. All I knew, or rather hoped, that it was going to be a life saver in the long hours of lock-up.
The last job to do was to make room for things on my smaller shelves or steps as they seemed to have been designed to be. Although I had nothing much of my own yet I still claimed the space due to me. Gathering Dave’s ‘stuff’ up as before, it was all dumped in one place near to his lap. Once I had wiped down the two small spaces it was all done. Dave was still wittering on about something or other despite me not showing any interest or even interacting by this point, he just carried on inanely to himself.
The next decision was how I would negotiate getting up onto my newly claimed and now neatly made bunk. It was much higher than the previous night’s arrangement and I didn’t relish any further embarrassing incidents in the process. The steps were put there for the purpose of course but they seemed more useful as shelves so I discounted them straight away. There was a simple plastic chair and his wheelchair but neither seemed a safe or stable option. It would have to be a jump or a hop or something of a combination. My confidence in the process was rather shaky but with my back to the bunk edge, ignoring my now re-prone pad mate’s complaints as he had to get his skinny leg out of my way, I stood precariously on the edge of his bedding. This gave me just enough height for the hop cum reverse jump, the second attempt did anyway; Dave found the first stumbling and quietly cursed failure rather amusing.
Now up and out of the way, it was like being in my own private space, clean, tidy and solitary even; except for the verbal drone below me, I felt much better. Laying out and stretching my limbs I hit a cold hard wall at the top and open free air at my feet; there was not as much room as I had hoped. Considering the contents of the space, such as it and they were, the matter of only having the thin pillow that was as the previous night would be a problem and I made a mental note to work on an alternative. The flat pan of the bunk was far better than the loose wire mesh from before but I didn’t think that the foam mattress would do anything for my already questionable back geometry, but this was it and I had to get on with it.
Trying desperately to relax I read the graffiti on the ceiling above me; why people felt the need to put it literally everywhere I didn’t know. What was I thinking, I was complaining as if this was a star rated hotel. This was a prison, there was no recourse or reason for complaint and the realisation swept over me and I felt a welling up inside that I didn’t necessarily want anyone to see. Knowing that this emotional state was bound to come at some point I was grateful for a pad mate who seemed to live in a world of his own most of the time. He would hopefully leave me alone in mine for the time being.
Eventually pushing my feelings away, I managed to concentrate on some activity on the other side of the door.
“That bay the workers back fo lunch,” at last some useful information although it was diluted with additional and unnecessary observation, “yous’ul ’ave to get mianne cus I cor walk,” as if I hadn’t worked that out by now.
He offered no other information about eating arrangements although I did wonder just how he had managed yesterday and the day before that but he might have had someone else here then, I couldn’t tell and didn’t bother to ask.
The main subject did raise some anxiety as to just what ‘lunch’ was to be about. With no idea of procedure, processes, availability or expectations, my mind started to race again. A small voice of reason eventually filtered through the raging and offered up the point that perhaps someone not so far below could be helpful in explaining some of these things if I were to ask. The voice was only in my head and as usual it didn’t manifest itself into making me ask the questions, I just lay there and waited instead.
“I dae like none of the food but yow better get it anyway,” it was not the encouraging help that I had hoped for, “I yam sposed to have me special diet for me illness but they wun’t get it me. If yous don’t get it,” I noted that he had already assumed that I would, “it goes on yower record, the basturds.”
By this time the noise had faded away which confused me. Having girded myself up for the job of getting our lunch it now didn’t seem to be happening.
There was a click, click, click, outside now that seemed to be getting louder or closer.
“They ’have t’ check as we ain’t scarpered,” he laughed to himself at the very notion.
The noise was revealed as the flap over our observation window clicked open in time with the general pattern of sounds. A narrow slice of a face paused to take in our presence and the flap clicked closed again; this too would be a regular and routine process to get used to.
After a moment or two more, numbers were shouted up and down the floors, a confirmation followed from what sounded to be up on high and apparently, we were all there. Another authoritative voiced rang out from somewhere.
“When you are ready Mr. Preston we will have the ones please,” the machine seemed to have swung into action.
Listening intently to what was happening, I could now hear the doors being unlocked one by one, each one seeming to get closer to ours. Nothing rushed, just a gentle, regulated pace until ours in its turn. No one looked in this time, it just swung ajar and I had no idea what was I expected to do now?
“Just tell the screws it bay fuwer Patterson, the’ll know whos it fowa.”
While slipping off the bunk I landing rather heavily. It was my first time and I hadn’t judged the distance very well; just something else to master. Tentatively opening the door a little I peered out. Not knowing even if I was supposed to touch the door let alone look through it, I knew that it wouldn’t open on its own. From the rather narrow viewpoint I tried to get an idea of what was happening without putting myself somewhere I possibly shouldn’t be.
Out on the wing there was a steady flow of people going in one general direction. It was my first real encounter with the rest of the prison population but they took no direct notice of me as far as I could tell for which I was grateful. Most of them weren’t talking just looking ahead as if they were concentrating intently on what they were doing. Picking my moment, I stepped out into the stream and joined the short queue that was forming ahead of me. It was good that there was this hiatus as it gave me time to see what I was moving towards and hopefully what was going on there. For the moment, I could see very little.
Unfortunately, the lull also meant that I was free to be distracted, this time by some of the people around me. Trying not to look directly at any of them, I just couldn’t help myself running a well tried and tested programme of analysis. Luckily, I was treated with some indifference which was probably a good thing as I had no idea what response would be forthcoming if anyone had spotted my interest or even just spoken to me. In the few moments of the short walk I took in a large amount of information to be stored away for decryption late on. The line continued to move forward slowly and I was grateful that I didn’t seem to stand out any more than any of the others, in its own small way this was a comfort at least.
As far as I could tell, being very critical or even ignorant, the only common elements between me and my fellow inmates were our clothes. Despite the subtle differences in the colours of sweat shirts, jeans and footwear and their general fit and finish, we were all dressed almost the same. As I looked beyond the clothing I noted that the individuals that made up this small community consisted of the broadest cross section of humanity that I think I had ever seen in one place. Wanting to take it all in, absorb the good, the bad and even the decidedly ugly, I was challenged instead with the main event at hand.
Stainless steel trays were stacked up on a trolley near to what I could start to see was the servery. A sign taped to the wall above the trays declared them to be ‘HOT’, as I got nearer I could see that they probably were as others were using paper towels from a teetering pile to pick them up with. Being careful, I eventually got mine and moved ever forward with the tide. Each tray had three indented compartments which made me question what our plastic property was for back in the cell. The process at the front of the queue was getting more interesting as I moved nearer. The servery, as the sign above it qualified, was a professional stainless steel set-up, bright heating spot lights and steam. Large trays of assorted foodstuffs were lined up each with a blue coated person waiting behind it, serving weapon of choice in hand.
Knowing that my mind could do strange things at times it flashed up a recollection of visits that I had made as a child to McColls restaurant in Birmingham after my regular visits to the city eye hospital. Exercises for a lazy eye forced me on the monotonous drudgery of a long bus journey week after week with my mother. The bribe of a ‘posh’ lunch would be one of the few things that kept me going over the years. In the earlier times when I was only 4 or 5 the distraction had been feeding the pigeons by the cathedral.
“Who are you?” I was snapped back rudely to the present.
The question came from a sour faced someone slumped on a stool at the start of the servery, clipboard in hand, marker pen poised in mid-air.
“Rollason,” was all I could muster but it was at least factual.
Although if it was a question he didn’t allow me a chance to offer an answer, “this one’s a spare, he can have number two,” I had obviously been dealt with, but still no wiser.
“I need to get Patterson his food,” my voice might have stuttered a little.
“Where’s the tray then, for God’s sake!”
I had nothing to offer in reply.
As I just stared helplessly around for any clues one was being passed begrudgingly over shoulders towards me; obviously, I was not the first to make the mistake.
“Give this one a two,” the sullen one repeated loudly ahead of him, “Patterson’s a three.”
Pressure from the queue behind me kept the line shuffling along, it seemed that it wasn’t going to stop for anything.
An officer was standing behind the line of servers as they slopped out the allotted ‘two’ and ‘three’ allocation onto my two trays. He didn’t smile or have any expression that I could fathom but he didn’t appreciate my looking at him at all; that was more than obvious. He was distracted from me as there was a discussion going on further down about how to divide up one of the trays of food and he stepped in to state the obvious, 28 portions meant four across and seven down. Once the dish had been successfully divided up he stepped back to just watching; I liked his authoritative manner as well as his boyish good looks but didn’t dare stare anymore.
“Keep it moving,” he was however speaking to me now, “we don’t have all day you know.”
Taking note of what I had been served I had a slab of what I assumed to be lasagne on one tray and what seemed to be cauliflower cheese on the other. These were topped up with vegetables of one sort or another, each of which seemed to be predetermined to go with the main element but it was all only a guess at that point in the proceedings. The numerical definitions for each dish were roughly marked alongside each station and it felt as if I had at least learnt something from the experience. Towards the end of the serving, a couple of slices of bread and two plastic pots of buttery spread were haphazardly thrown at each tray. Having just managed to steady them I turned back down the line on the other side of the barrier and heading off back towards the cells.
Ever curious, even in these high-pressure times, my eye was caught by a number of glass fronted cabinets mounted on the walls all around the serving area. They were only a few centimetres deep and inside were drawn outlines of kitchen implements, spoons, ladles, spatulas, knives etc. My brain immediately pieced together the missing pieces with those in use with the latest food offerings. It also linked the carefully scribed outlines to those you see around dead bodies in often unrealistic crime media. The combination of all these thoughts gelled into how such simple practical tools could be used in the wrong hands as deadly weapons; I moved on quickly. Passing a container of dubiously brown liquid, it didn’t look very much like it but it was probably gravy; I walked on even more quickly without sampling its delights.
The last piece of the puzzle was to pass one of the tall tables that had trays of muffins, wrapped and fruit, unwrapped. Behind it sat a dumpy little prisoner witlessly handing them out as each person passed by. He seemed almost asleep, using only one hand for the job while resting his head lazily in the other. There didn’t seem to be a choice and again I only just managed to balance the offerings as I walked past. We had a muffin each but the apple would be for me and Dave could have the orange, the decision was rather undemocratic but it was made.
“Back you go, keep it moving.”
The last officer on meal duty interjected with the unnecessary instruction having broken away from a conversation he was having with another; he went straight back to it.
I said it without thinking but didn’t think that it received the appreciation that I had intended it to have.
Walking back down the wing towards number 20, I could see an officer making his way very slowly ahead of me and some of the others also on their way back. He looked round with a face that said, get a move on. Seeing that he was locking up as he went along without breaking his swinging stride, I picked up my pace. Another ‘thank you’ from me as I just squeezed inside in time also went without acknowledgement.
Dave had slumped to his reclining pose again but pushed himself up on one elbow as I held out one of the trays not knowing what he was expecting to be on it. I had taken the use of the word ‘spare’ during the service to mean that I had been given whatever might be left over although quite how they knew that I didn’t know; something else to work out and help keep my mind active.
“I’ll leave it here then.”
Dave hadn’t made any effort and I wasn’t going to just stand there waiting for him.
“Thanks, that’s fianne.”
I must have guessed the food correctly as he made no comment on my choice of giving him the cauliflower and extras. Sliding my tray up on my bunk I worked out how to get myself up there using the hop and pop method but without losing any of the food back over the edge. There was of course the option of sitting at the newly cleaned table top using the plastic chair now it was uncluttered, but I had already decided that I didn’t need an audience while I got to grips with my first sampling of prison food. The procedure for mounting my bunk was managed more easily than I had expected and I sat with my legs dangle over the edge and the rapidly cooling tray on my lap.
Oh no, schoolboy error, I had forgotten to pick up the plastic cutlery. Sighing aloud, the up and down acrobatics got me fully equipped and by the time I was settled I was ready to eat. Below me Dave was desolately scraping the food around on his tray and mumbling some intelligible gripe, his tray popped out into view between my feet.
“If there bay ay’thing yow want just tec it, I dae wan’ it, they knows I cor eat it.”
He had slipped into an even deeper near incoherent drawl as he complained once more and I had to concentrate to comprehend what he was muttering about. In the end, it was easier to just pretend that I hadn’t heard him. I did notice that the muffin and orange had disappeared, those would have been my only items of choice.
Being hungrier than I had realised I might have eaten almost anything that they had served. From somewhere I did have a vague recollection of a sign reading ‘Kitchen’ near that first night wing and, now I come to think about it, the smell of cooking, it’s amazing what the brain can store away without you even noticing; or was that just me. All these things would be clarified over time no doubt.
The whole food issue was particularly interesting once I knew that there could be anything up to 1500 prisoners in here at any one time which only added to my commendation of the catering arrangements; if few of the others did.
Finishing the main course and now less hungry, my only comment would be that it could have been hotter but it didn’t really matter; I had eaten much colder in restaurants before now. Thinking ahead I put the muffin to one side as I didn’t know quite when the next meal might be; plan for the worse just in case. Although I hadn’t eaten my bread, I had used the margarine type greasy spread to lubricate the slightly al-détente potatoes. Leaving the bread on the tray I slid it to the end of the bunk, swung my feet up and stretched out again. The muttering noises were still coming up from below me but I was more interested in the sounds from outside the cell. I felt the need to follow every process with a general interest, knowing that it might be prudent to understand the procedures as quickly as possible, to be as little help or hindrance as I could manage.
“Send on the three’s Mr. Boswell,” at least my assumption of the floor numbering had been confirmed.
Eating my meal had only taken about 15 minutes or so during which the call had gone out in turn for all the other floors to eat. The distant clunk of opening locks started again and I pictured the shuffling footsteps on the landings, down the metal stairs where they were joined shortly after by heavier hollow upward paces as the inmates returned to their cells. For once I was thankful for a vivid and visual imagination.
The call accompanied the unlocking and partial opening of our cell door.
“Yow have to put trays outsiad,” the directive came from below.
Hopping down off my bunk I didn’t get to the door before a rather fresh if annoyed face popped through.
“Come on, I don’t have all day.”
The impatient blue coated worker was obviously short on tolerance and grabbed each tray that was offered towards him. I noted that he didn’t step inside the cell, perhaps it was the still lingering odour or perhaps some other demarcation. My smile didn’t cut through his grumbling.
“You’re s’pposed to put um outside the doower they aint allowed in.”
I hoped that it was only coincidence that Dave had answered my unfulfilled assessment of the situation and not some more obvious or sinister ability he might have; please stop over thinking everything, I had to tell myself sternly. All I could do was stand helplessly but honestly admonished. The door closed quickly and loudly behind the retreating figure ending the incident. Evidently I would have to be more on the ball than I had been and not risk getting a reputation of any kind before having a chance to settle in
“Yow can borra me tae bags again if yow wanna.”
The Black Country speak was becoming more understandable when he wanted it to be but it didn’t throw me off the fact that he was expecting another drink.
“I’m OK for now,” I grunted although I could have drunk one myself.
Pushing myself back up onto my bunk to disappointed sighs from my new friend, I lay out once more in restful contemplation. It went quiet down below for a while as I listened to the rest of the lunch service and the cleaning regime that followed it.
“Well that’s it ‘till dinna, yous wown’t get soush yow can bet yam life.”
Not really understanding the whole sentence, I let the comment float over me along with the many others that followed it. For now, I wasn’t particularly bothered even if I knew what any of it meant.
My task for the present was to work out how I would manage to get comfortable up here for the many nights ahead. My movements to this end caused me to belch for which I automatically apologised, not that it interrupted the one-sided conversation going on below me. The regurgitated taste of lasagne, bizarre as it may seem bought a memory up from the depths of my subconscious. It was of a vaguely similar meal but taken in a very different setting. The recollection was eerily enhanced by a narrow shaft of sunlight that had just crept into the window opening and spread across the wall in front of me as I lay on my side. Curiously, I had found that the standard medical recovery position was the most comfortable way of lying for now. Feeling the heat from the bright reflection, it had only been a few weeks before that the same sun had been shining on a very different part of the world, with a very disparate vista.