My superficial involvement in prison life so far had told me very little about its workings and I was determined not to let my imagination run away as it could so easily do. Based on what I had seen in television programmes, none of the experiences so far were too much of a surprise but, there had to be more to it than that. Patience and a little faith was all I hoped I might need. Hopefully I could rely on my fast and proficient formulation of coping strategies to get me through almost anything along with separation techniques I had successfully developed over the years. The dichotomy of life was, always had trouble where areas overlapped. Given a preference I would have been in a cell on my own of course but in an odd way I didn’t want to be alone. Having no choice here, all I wanted to do was work out the best way to share a space but keep myself separate. Based on only scant knowledge, I knew I would probably have to be with other prisoners so I needed ways of being safe from what I had seen of either abuse or unwitting exploitation.
The wittering from the bunk below me was in full flow again. It was difficult to work out if this was his natural state of being manic, unstable, or even if he was just lonely. He had started to go over his earlier comments again about our neighbours in the yard so I broke in on it to stem the waffle.
“How long have you been here?”
I had gone for a non-threatening and open question to test the waters.
“It must be months now, even if I had done it I wouldn’t ay got this long, I told um…”
Before he went through the whole contorted mess I knew it would be, I realised I had to be more careful about how I posed my questions. To save the reader I will refrain from detailing his accent in the vernacular, I had a hard-enough time to translate it in real time let alone share it intelligently here.
After letting him run for a while I attempted an interruption to at least get some sort of time line into the proceedings. The tale of woe seemed to lack any structure and many of the proffered facts were not very interesting anyway.
What was interesting was, according to him this is, he had been far more physically active when on the outside. It was easy to believe as he openly admitted to several of the rather mysterious, if not fictitious ailments that had keep him out of work and on benefit. There were snippets of stories about his dogs of which he had several of them, I think. Friends or family was after looking them, or not at all in some variations of the story. They were various large breeds he seemed to have put together regularly for pups which were sold on; I had a keen interest in dogs and we always had them at home, on the farm that is. It was something I had always wanted later in life but had never been able to justify the responsibility either when I was married or afterwards. Back to the present, curiously they were the first things Dave and I might have had in common. Unfortunately, my efforts to get him to elaborate on the subject became a losing battle. Despite having my own private reasons for the interest, I didn’t think it was a good idea to share those small pleasures with him just yet.
Despite his very animated recounting of the story, none of it sounded plausible and I was glad I had not the one to try to put together some form of defence in court. The main reason for being locked away for such a long time was that he was not going to plead to something he hadn’t or couldn’t have physically done. The reason he kept up this obviously invented disability in here started to become clearer as he had to stick to the story or he had no defence at all. Sex with a minor, gross indecency, supplying minors with alcohol, benefit fraud, the list would be endless. At this point, I started to lose interest as he was repeating things and it was clear that I wasn’t going to sway him back onto more interesting subjects for the time being.
To help block him out I lay back and retreated into my own thoughts considering the plain fact that I couldn’t take too much of the moral high ground. It would be unfair if not impossible to hold any valid opinion of his difficulties, or I suspected many of the other inmates; those who are without sin and all that.
The difficulty was, I could see things from both sides just as I could in so many other situations and, rather perversely, argue both at the same time. Within this strange dichotomy, I could appreciate extreme behaviours but at the same time be repulsed by them all within the same thought space. My own illegal exertions had no specific similarity to Dave’s as far as I could tell and they involved very different subjects but, it resulted in our over simplistic labelling of ‘sex offender’. Once tagged with this stark demarcation I knew it would be impossible to shake it off and re-enter general society, however major or minor offences were. A line had been crossed and there would be no way back.
Despite this often spurious misrepresentation, it was hard to accept the label. Unlike my fellow intern, I could never have involved a child directly but had taken pleasure from looking at pictures of exactly such things. Further I could never deliberately induce anyone with alcohol but longed for the freedom from inhibition I knew it could produce. The truth was, I was no better than anyone else on this side of the wall and that barred me from throwing any metaphorical stones. No one would ever trust me with anything anymore however good I might have been at it, no more helping, no more supporting, no more loving; my world was at an end. A voice from the darkness was calling me and I tried to get my brain onto a healthier subject and pull away from the edge. For some reason the mini whirlpool of feelings sired up a vague memory of the stories from Sunday school days; it had latched onto the ‘sin’ reference.
Sunday school; I hoped the topic was at least safer for the moment. Sunday school, the only other time outside normal school days when I at least got to try to be friends with some of the other village kids. Participating in it religiously each week was something I was expected to do; it seemed that way anyway not that I ever questioned the matter. I had no memory of either of my siblings going to it but they were each somewhat older than me of course. In the early weeks, I didn’t quite get the significance of anything which was going on in and around church but I liked the stories, the singing, some drawing and of course the colouring in. We also had little books to collect colourful picture stamps each week, all with a different part of a bible story on it. I often volunteered to hand these out but only because I get the first pick of the sheet to fill my book without duplicates.
The other most notable thing for me was that it was a place where I didn’t get picked on by any of the others. This was a great bonus although I still didn’t feel any more of an integral part of the group either. The only kudos I got was because attending was what was expected of me, I seemed to get some brownie points at home which was always a good thing.
Eventually, as I got older I would go on to lead Sunday school, oh the power I had, or not as it turned out and eventually I would run the whole thing. This included rounding up the kids each week, all five of them at the end but, it was ‘the thing to do’; always ‘the thing to do’. Never what I really thought I wanted to do, it eventually turned into more of a shroud of decency and social involvement which conveniently seemed to hide my growing, splendid isolation.
In general life, there were so many everyday situations where I could see myself slipping aimlessly through, feeling one thing, saying another, doing whatever I did because it was ‘the thing to do’. Deep down I was just hiding away in my own deeply distorted solitary world. Something poked me in the ribs, metaphorically of course. This thinking back wasn’t working and I was starting to get maudlin again. Felling that I was right on the edge of losing my composure, one of my inner voices was doing its best to rescue me again, find some balance and keep it together. Outside this tumultuous mental world, Dave was still wandering in his own strange landscape. In the harsh light of normality, my body told me I needed a cup of tea; obviously, I would have to make it.
While I was waiting for the kettle to boil I stared outside once more and considered what else might go on in the yard. It had gone quiet again on the lower bunk and I risked breaking into Dave’s grey seedy world to try and glean more useful practical information on our facilities.
“You said we wouldn’t get any association today,” I didn’t wait to see if he was listening or not, “how often do we get to be out of the cells?”
“We’re supposed to get some exercise every day, outside for an hour or just out on the wing, I don’t …,” I quickly cut him off before the walking thing slipped back in.
“How do we get to know when it might happen?”
“That’s the thing, you don’t. You can try and guess when it should be but the screws are the ones who tell you when and that can be any-time, It says in the rules…”
Sensing another denouncement, I switched off but this information didn’t sound very encouraging. Seeing little if any advantage in making a fuss about things, especially as I didn’t know what was real and what was fanciful yet, I had to let it go.
The kettle had managed to boil in this short time; the benefits of such a small device. It was also about the total length of time I could rely on my companion for any meaningful conversation. He had drifted off again to his rambling wilderness and I got on with making the tea.
One of the biggest lessons I had to remember in here was to think well ahead and hang onto things as they became available, just in case they didn’t again. We seemed to have all the basics for day to day life but perhaps they wouldn’t be there at the precise moment you might want them. Tea bags were a case in point, I hadn’t asked this time but just helped myself to two bags from the cache I found stored cleanly in a small plastic bag. Doubting Dave knew exactly what he had and what he didn’t, it shouldn’t matter in the end. This planning strategy recalled the slices of bread which had gone out with the lunch tray perhaps they might have been another thing to have. Perhaps I needed to keep anything we had in excess? Was it practical, was it even allowed? The entire how and where I could possibly keep things would at least occupy my mind. My companion would have known but it risked another long denunciation and so I decided I would work it out for myself.
Filtering his comments through one of my many mental barriers, I was now only half listening to him most of the time just in case there was anything interesting or useful falling from his lips. He had gone over his pet problems again but with no further details and the female subjects were well outside my area of interest. He did catch me unawares though as I handed him his mug of weak, milky, sweet tea.
“What you in for then?”
Having spent many years avoiding giving answers to questions where I didn’t really need to, I had so far never considered the practicalities of such a plan of action in here. Being ‘banged up’ as they call it, with someone I couldn’t avoid, I struggled to think of anything which sounded even remotely plausible on the criminal scale of ‘not very much’.
“It’s all a bit of mess, a mistake really, nothing much, anyway I’m only on remand.”
It was all I could come up with on the spot, I was disappointed in myself but perhaps it had been suitably vague to dissuade him from asking more.
“You’d better have a good solicitor because once they get you behind bars they forget all about you know and you’re stuffed, it don’t matter if you’ve done it or not, I….,”
He started off again but my spirit slumped internally at the thought of any degree of abandonment, surely that couldn’t be the case; I gave myself a mental slap. Think before you speak, it was what you normally did so just be better at it from now on or else. Accepting the self-admonished I hopped up onto the bunk to get out of the way. Diversionary tactics, that’s what you are good at, remember? I felt a little better having reassured my doubting self.
“What sort of dogs did you say you had?”
It was enough of a safe topic to re-direct the difficult conversation for now and something which didn’t need me to listen to everything that he was saying, or repeating which would most likely be the case. It did get me back into my safe area, sipping the very welcome and warming cup of tea.
My question hadn’t been completely random; I had a very keen interest in animals and wildlife in general. From a very early age I had wanted to be a zoo keeper and at about nine years of age had even written to Desmond Morris, from the television, to ask how I should go about it. His replying at all was a great surprise but the suggestion I either go to university to study or start at the bottom and shovel my way along the career path wasn’t very encouraging. The requirement for yet more education, when you are still in junior school, didn’t inspire me too much. In the end, I did neither but have always keep my interest in the subject; living on a farm was education enough for that period of my young life.