Chapter Seventeen ~ prison visitors, not always so easy

The lunch trays were cleared away and the wing went into its half hour quiet respite before the workers went back to whatever work they had to do. As far as I was concerned, time had ground to a halt. The television was still being flicked from channel to channel as Dave couldn’t decide which piece of drivel he wanted to watch, I just wanted to get to see what form my visit would take.

Trying to stop the river of ever-changing images and sounds, I attempted to distract the button baron with some simple questions. He had already told me all the gruesome details of his most recent life and I knew there was little I could build up to a normal conversation, but I had to try. Despite my patience, each subject I tried eventually twisted round to yet another attempt to get my own story into the open and that was never going to happen. My patience eventually ran out and I lay back down to wait for presumably officers to come and get me.

It seemed the only common interest we had were dogs. Although I had never owned one of my own, for the 25 years I was at the family home there was always one of them wandering around the place. When I was very young they always seemed to be old, shaggy, and not very interested in playing or being played with one. In my pre-teen era, we had a large monster of a brute innocuously named Jack. He was kept purely for guarding purposes and was as far from being a household pet as you could get. He was lived outside attached to a long heavy-set of chains for most of each day and could run up and down in front of the house with the chain making fearful noise as he did. Everything that passed on the road or came into the farm started this terrifying rattle and a barking hell storm as he would rush out of his kennel straining at the limits of the restraints which I was never quite sure would hold and avoided getting too close; just in case.

Once or perhaps twice a day we seemed to be corralled in the house for an hour when the black behemoth would be let off for a free ranging run around the farm. On the odd occasion, he came into the house after this exercise, I would be terrified. Eventually age and most likely the Dickensian treatment, insanity finally overtook him and he got too difficult to manage and the vet had to come down and shoot him while he was locked away in one of the cow sheds. My grandfather had been the main keeper of the animal and I had never seen him so upset about anything before. The rest of the household felt relieved at our loss.

Not long after that my father was the one taking charge of a new, rather friendlier blonde bouncing beast, a mixture of Labrador and Lurcher as far as we could tell. Creamy yellow, short smooth soft coat, ridiculously long legs; he was lovely in both nature and looks. He came from a rescue home and was already partly grown but despite being a very nervous individual to begin with, it didn’t take long for him to get over whatever dubious past he had suffered and he was soon freely ranging around the house and gardens enjoying many supervised excursions into the fields, always friendly, always fun, always a friend. He also managed to get me over a few more educational hurdles much as the other animals had. Thankfully, he was equally inquisitive and interactive as I was and for several years we had many, if intermittent interludes which we both seemed to enjoy, satisfying our needs for unquestioned comradeship and fumbling fun.

“What’s up with you?

It took me a moment to register the change in tone from the bunk below.

“What? Nothing, no I’m fine.”

Having obviously lied, I had hoped it was only me who had heard the rather sad sigh that I made from yet another fond memory had slipped out of another one of my more personal mental boxes. The mood was broken and I returned reluctantly to the real world.

Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get Dave to stick to one subject at a time and gave up; yet again. While I had been playing this verbal table tennis and reminiscing through my own experiences, the pointless noise from below me had become more of a pathetic bleat and I was glad for the afternoon’s action to finally bang and crash its way back into life. The workshop workers went off leaving just the staff meandering noisily about doing not very much at all; as usual.

Having no idea about the visitors’ timetable and not wanting to waste my time by asking my compatriot for any insight, I could only sit and wait for something to happen. Having already had a wash and tidied myself up to help pass the time, eventually the flap flipped open and an unfamiliar face peered in.

“Rollason, visit?”

It was posed as a question but I took it more as just a confirmation. The door was unlocked following my nodded acknowledgement and it swung silently wide open.

“You’re not dressed, sort yourself out will you.”

Not knowing what he meant I could feel another inane blank look settle on my face, obviously, this was yet another thing I didn’t understand; I didn’t like to not know important things. He seemed to recognise the expression.

“You need a visitor’s shirt.”

Dave had attempted to pipe up with the same information but too late. Rather uncharitably, I was thinking that if he didn’t have your head so far up his arse I wouldn’t now look rather like a dick; I smiled briefly at my crude homosexual humorous analogy.

“I didn’t know what I had to do, sorry,” my mumbled apology to the officer didn’t seem to cut any ice.

“Go and see Jones in the clothes store,” he took a step back from the doorway and I stepped towards the door hopefully to show my compliance and understanding, “be quick about it, I’ll be back in five.”

Moving promptly outside the cell, the door was locked behind me. He went one way I went the other and I heard his heavy footsteps bounded noisily up the metal stairs to the office level. Trying to control the redness of my face, I kept my eyes to the floor as the wing workers all seemed to stare at my obvious ineptitude; they probably weren’t taking any notice at all but it felt very uncomfortable.

Thankfully, the clothes store was also on the ground floor so I didn’t have far to walk in my head hung shame; I had seen the sign many times but only once managed to glance inside what was just a converted cell. The walls were fitted out with wide shelves and the floor space contained several deep wheeled bins. There were none of the residential fixtures and fittings and a small hinged counter top blocked the doorway. The attending Jones was busy folding clothes, stacking them into very neat piles in their allotted places around the room. He looked up eventually, his stare and lack of smile confirmed I had intruded into his quiet working afternoon.

“I need a visitor’s shirt,” I was polite despite it not being the general way of the wing, “please?”

“You just come in?”

Despite his rather unfortunate face, his tone was friendly enough.

“Yes, well no, a while ago, I just haven’t had a visit before that’s all.”

Knowing I was rambling with my nervousness and had said far too much for the simple question, I saw he wasn’t interested in my life story and he cut me off.

“What size?” He didn’t wait for my estimate. “Large, probably extra, try this.”

The fact that he was looking me up and down as he spoke was distraction enough and I almost managed to not catch the neatly folded item as he deftly spun it across the width of the storeroom and skilfully through the narrow doorway. The heavy cotton shirt was in pale blue with narrow white stripes, or was it white with blue stripes; shut up please my head was telling itself. Realising I had already seen many of them on the wing, I hadn’t associated exactly what they were used for.

“Try it on then,” he was standing looking at me rather expectantly, “don’t be shy.”

He managed a lob sided grin which fortunately morphed into a smile, perhaps he meant well. Glancing around and seeing I was not as much the centre of attention as I had imagined, it didn’t stop me still feeling very self-conscious. Pealing the sweatshirt off over my head, I found myself sucking in my ugly hairy paunch of a stomach and continuing to hold it as I tried on the shirt. It was too small even with my rather inept attempt at size reduction. The mistake had already been noticed.

“Try this one,” another shirt winged its way towards my head.

“Sorry, sorry,” I had managed to drop all the items by this time.

“Don’t rush, make the bastards wait,” his rather calming comment helped to cover my embarrassment, “they can’t take you down ‘till you have your shirt so make ‘um wait.”

Although I didn’t necessarily agree with his assessment of the situation, I did slow down to get this rather simple matter sorted out as fast I could; for my own peace of mind if nothing else.

The second shirt was a much better fit so we seemed to have settled on that one and I had to admit to feeling quite smart in it. Despite the short sleeves, the crisp, starched, coarse cotton felt and looked better than I had imagined it would do.

“You got the rest of your kit OK?”

I didn’t understand his additional comment.

“Just what I was given when I came in, I don’t know, I guess so, one of everything I think.”

My head told me I was starting to ramble again but I put it down to not being used to talking to my fellow felons; it seemed to impede my ability to act normally.

“What pad are you in?”

He obviously hadn’t noticed my concerns, or perhaps he was just ignoring them; I told him which one.

“Oh, you got that dirty lazy fucker, I pity you,” I started to enjoy his sympathy, “leave it with me, I’ll drop some things in for you later,” he turned away and the consultation seemed to be over.

“Thanks, thank you for your help,” but I was too late, he had gone back to his folding activity.

“Rollason, ready,” it was a voice from on high and an instruction not a question, I didn’t feel the need to reply this time, “stop all the chattering and get yourself over there with the other two.”

The officer had landed on the ground floor by that time and was indicating two other smart, appropriately dressed inmates. As I joined them only one nodded me his greeting. Realising I didn’t know either of them other than by some fleeting sight, either on the wing or in the yard, it didn’t seem to matter. The friendlier one was scuffing his feet against the shiny floor, the other just stood, head down, arms folded, neither of them smiled again. Not knowing either the official or unofficial protocol, I didn’t make any further efforts. Unconsciously, I did take the time to notice that both seemed to have made some effort to look their best under the circumstances. It was all relative of course although the one who had nodded did have a rather smart haircut, quite how it had been achieved I didn’t know; something else to find out about.

“Let’s go boys,”

The lilting tone of the warder seemed much happier now we were all in order and ready to go. Hanging back behind the other two, I still wanted to try to fit into the regime as best I could and there were obviously many things still to take in.

Any prisoner movements started only after formal confirmation over the radio from central control; the process was the same as any other transfer I had been on. As we moved off, no one in the group spoke, no one put a foot out of place, no one wanted to create any problem, the risk of losing a visitor privilege was oblivious.

Once all the workshops had been safely locked in place, there were only a few outside workers moving cages and trolleys of assorted matter but the estate seemed to be quite busy in its own way. Each group or individual had their own officer escort but I felt the looks and stares burn through uncomfortably although perhaps these were magnified by my fear of the unknown. Neither of the other two in our party took any notice as far as I could tell, but they still had their neat heads down so I followed suit. The only times we glanced up were as we took in the various cat calls and some rather colourful descriptions of us floated down from one or two of the wings which we had to pass. Trying hard not to look up, we all three failed and this small lack of self-control only fuelled the excitement; I made a note to try to stop my curiosity killing this particular cat.

We twisted and turned our way through several sets of gates and walkways, back towards the reception block. My memories of my first night came flooding back and as we got nearer to the door clearly marked with its regulation sign, my stomach clenched in some unsupported trepidation. Thankfully my fellow visit candidates stood to the side of a different door but I found myself staring at the other one.

Dragging myself back to the moment, the door we were waiting by had a clear sign above it, one I hadn’t noticed before but it helped to calm my nerves just a little, Visitors Hall. The regular open and shut process took us into the bottom of a narrow stair-well where we waited to one side once more as the officer locked up behind us. Once safe, the other two started up the stairs ahead of him and I followed suit step for step. They stopped near the top of the second flight just short of the next gate which blocked the way ahead. The gate itself was nothing new but the noise from beyond it was. I couldn’t see what all the commotion was but the others obviously knew what was happening and looked rather nervous for some reason. Trying to get some sort of visual clue, all I got from one of them was a swing of a head to silently tell me to step to the side, out of the way. Stepping smartly in answer to his unspoken suggestion, the officer passed us, unlocked the gate, and swung it open. No one moved and I was yet again confused.

Our gaoler had gone through the now open gateway and was unlocking another door opposite it across the corridor. Once this one was open, my two companions almost ran across the gap and through to the room ahead of us.

The speed of the movement caught me unawares and I lagged behind them by quite a measure. The increased commotion which had set off to our right almost made me stop in my tracks. What I assumed were the other visitor inmates were giving full cry against us thankfully behind another barred gate. It was obvious they knew our status and revelled in the sport of VP bashing; verbally that is. It was over almost before it started as we disappeared out of sight. Although it was rather unnerving it was just one more thing to put up with; next time I would be better prepared.

Our route now seemed to take us through a series of store rooms, a small kitchen area and into a holding room lined with wooden benches. We had passed a couple of wing workers in their ‘greens’ overalls, busy making several mugs of tea and coffee. One of my group spoke to one of them, exchanging basic pleasantries but without stopping in our progression.

Now in the waiting room, following the instruction to sit and wait, the lead officer went on through yet another door and into a large open room; we three sat as instructed, well spread out on the benches.

“You need a vest,” it must have been obvious to the others that it was my first visit.

“Thanks,” it didn’t seem to be an opening for conversation but I could at least be civil.

In a cardboard box, there were a number of nylon tabards in fluorescent orange, the smarter of the two inmates stood up and passed me the box and I fished a vest out. They were all rather tatty but I followed my companions lead and draped one of the better-looking ones over my head as best I could after untangling the Velcro fixtures which served no real purpose any more. We all eventually sat down again, still well-spaced and silent. As there didn’t seem to be any conversation to be had, in an uncomfortable silence I contemplated the possibilities of the event in the hall ahead of us.

On the other side of the wire reinforced glass partition, the visitors’ hall was large, brightly lit, and relatively inviting with potted palms standing between the large mirror glass panels around the walls; observation windows no doubt. Across the floor, I could just see the tops of rows of chairs set around low tables spaced orderly across the floor. With one seat on one side and three opposite, it wasn’t difficult to work out that the single was for the prisoner the three were for the visitors. Half way down the room, set to one side there was a large wooden desk raised up on a plinth of some sort. At it sat an officer who was fiddling with paperwork and occasionally speaking on a telephone.

We three looked round as one of the wing workers came into the back of the waiting area with a tray of mugs; the hot drinks he had been working on. Reaching the locked door to the visitors’ hall he kicked roughly at it to announce his presence. A woman officer appeared on the other side and unlocked it for him, re-locking it immediately he had passed through; one of my waiting companions snorted derision.

“What I wouldn’t give for a good cup of coffee,” he seemed to speak to no one in particular.

Outside I could see the drinks being distributed to most of the officers who had now gathered in front of the desk and seemed to be receiving some sort of briefing. The door was unlocked again for the tea boy to return to his kitchen, closely followed by another older gent with a large mop in a wheeled bucket. He had been cleaning the floor, cornering himself at the door to finish off the task. The door was locked again although just where they thought we were going to run off to with all those officers sitting around I couldn’t imagine. Someone spoke; the neat good-looking one.

“He’s been here 35 years you know.”

The comment made no sense to me and again, didn’t seem to be have been made to anyone as far as I could tell. The other guy didn’t respond and we just sat waiting. Another comment came.

“He was in for the riots, when they tried to burn the place to the ground, got him another 15 years.”

Trying to piece the comments together, I assumed it was the older of the two workers he was talking about. There was still no response from we other two. There was still just the waiting.

Eventually after the awkward silence, I almost jumped at a direct question, obviously now directed at me.

“Your first time?”

The guy sitting nearest to me, the good looking guy, smiled as I looked up at him and I saw he was waiting for some sort of reply.

“Yes, yes, it is.”

I knew my ‘virgin’ status was rather more than obvious.

“You can’t wear your jumper in there, shirts only.”

“Oh, OK, thanks, I didn’t know,” I felt myself go red, again.

Unfortunately, it was the full extent of the exchange and rather self-consciously I took off the tabard and peeled off the still tight sweatshirt, feeling very self-conscious. Annoyed with myself for doing the ridiculous sucking in of my stomach again, I tidied myself up perhaps rather too much, to try to cover up my over-heated embarrassment. Despite knowing vanity would get you anywhere in here, I tucked myself neatly away, tidied what little hair I had left on my head and replaced the worn fluorescent cloth.

Knowing I probably shouldn’t look around as much as I would normally do, I concentrated on the large wall clock at the far end of the hall. My eyes were never good but the added distortion of the wire mesh in the window made it difficult to see what the time was very accurately. Knowing all prison time was only relative, it didn’t really seem to matter; I just needed a distraction while we waited. The big hand had reached the top of the hour, the other was hovering around the number two position.

“Can’t they ever be on bloody time, the bloody idiots,” it was the other one this time, “my missus has to get back for the kids and we get little enough fucking time as it is, bastards.”

The complaint seemed to be to the world in general. The tension in the room went up a notch or two. We other two smiled our acceptance of his assertion and he settled down again into a brooding silence.

Outside there was some more concentrated movement and the officers had started to disperse from their meeting. Some went to different corners of the hall and sat on tall wooden stools to overlook the hall. Two others went to the far end and opened a door hidden from our view behind what looked like a vending machine. Others went out of sight on the other side to our waiting room and what I presumed was to the hoard of belligerent inmates, thankfully still well out of our way. Everything went very still again, the deployment obviously wasn’t the start of the session, just another tedious step in it.

Eventually though there was action and the first civilian appeared in the far corner of the visitor hall. They handed a slip of paper to one of the two waiting officers and made their way to the coffee machines rather than the seats which had been indicated to her; a drink was an obvious priority. One of my companions, the smart one, stood and straightened his jeans, brushed his shirt down to remove any creases, ran a hand over his perfectly trimmed hair and sat down again; it was easy to tell he was nervous. Perhaps I should have felt the same but I didn’t so what should I be feeling; I discussed the issues silently with myself inside my head.

More people drifted in from the far side of the hall and eventually made their way to the seats which the officers indicated with outstretched arms. We couldn’t hear anything that might have been said although there was little general conversation from what I could see. Behind us, around through the storage rooms and corridors, it was possible to hear the increase in excitement from the other prisoners. There sounded to be quite a lot of them now and if the number of seats indicated anything, there would be. Just how they were going to react to us, the special ones, once we were all out there mixed in the open room started to make me as nervous as my fellow VPs now looked; I concentrated on the activities going on in front of us instead of the noise behind.

Slowly, with cups of hot drinks, packets of crisps and various other vended snacks balanced in hands, under arm pits and in vulgar red lips, the visitors made their way to the allocated places where they waited for their respective prisoners. There were the bold and the glamorous, all high heels and hair dos, long legs and plenty of cleavage, no doubt for the benefit of the hard pressed detained. There was also what seemed to be the ordinary in fact the full spectrum of a modern society. Old and young, some very young still in nappies, some very old, parents or even grandparents perhaps, their expressions seemed to cover everything from nerves, being bored, to disappointed. Some of the toddlers started to run up and down until they were scolded by staff and sulkily returned to sit and wait as patiently as they could for someone they might call Dad to appear. The pantomime of people was rather a culture shock after the rather monocular solitude of the wing.

This eventually started to happen once the first visitors were in their places. Not knowing quite what I was feeling, all I could do was hope I wouldn’t react badly when my time came to go out into it the melee. As the event continued to roll out, the main wing prisoners seemed to be more interested in their loved ones which was a relief, but we were still safely behind glass. My concerned thought was interrupted by one of my group standing again, the nervous, good-looking one. He moved to the door and paced up and down a little in front of it. Perhaps he had seen his visitor arrive? Not being able to make out any proper facial details of anyone, I wondered if I would manage to spot my own kith or kin, whoever it was on their way here. My companions’ quickly reducing patience was rewarded by the door being unlocked for him. A young girl had already sat down at one of the tables right in front of the window where we were waiting. I hadn’t noticed her make any exchange with our guy, but it was obvious now that they were lost loves soon to be reunited; if only for a short time.

Access to the hall required us to have a pat down body search, more thorough than the exercise yard regime, but painless enough in the great scheme of things but he was eventually let through to his beau. The door was locked again by the young officer after a few words in our general direction.

“Sit quite lads, not long now I’m sure,” the officer seemed to appreciate what effect the waiting was having on us.

It was only a minute or less before there was more action although I had been rather distracted by the other prisoners filing in on the other side of the room.

“Here we go.”

The other chap stood and tidied himself as the first had, moved to the door, waved at his visitor and another girl with them and waited to be let through.

“She never lets me down.”

He spoke the words of gratitude for himself rather than for me I was sure.

From my seated position, it was difficult to see out across the sea of people to try to spot anyone I knew. Then, there they were.

I had missed him coming in, too interested in everyone else as usual; it was disappointing that even now I still didn’t have the inner strength to blame myself for my unwarranted interest in other people. By the time I had ended the mental discussion, my visitor was sitting down, he mouthed a ‘hello’ and I immediately felt myself welling up inside. The tears were teetering on the edges of my eye lids and I knew I would lose what little self-control I had in the next few minutes; the only saving grace was I was alone in the room. To help get past the moment I stood up pretended to straighten my shirt and jeans, brushing off imaginary dust and examining my hands for invisible detritus. Not wanting to look at my visitor, but also desperate to get this first meeting under way, it must have looked rather strange from the outside. In my peripheral vision, I could see my son was trying to get my attention, I could see the wave but I couldn’t bring myself to look straight at him; not yet.

After what seemed just too long, the officer ran the extraction protocol and I was let out of the relative safety of the waiting room. My fears of the other prisoners melted away as my direct focus settled on what seemed to be a very confused young man. Although as a family we were not big on physical expressions of any kind, the hug and kiss on the cheek were exceptionally potent. A tear rolled down both of our cheeks and we were unable to speak for some moments. Eventually we sat, the table between us awash with drinks, snacks, and packets of sweets, I went for the hot chocolate first, a veritable luxury on my side of the prison wall.

Although it had only been a few days, a week, I couldn’t remember how long, it seemed as if it had been very much longer. The conversation, once it started, turned into rather more of a free-for-all and I had difficulty in answering one query before he threw another one into the mix. There were no real answers to any of his questions, none I wanted to give yet anyway, but I hoped to just keep him calm and try to get used to the catastrophic changes in both of our lives. Somehow, I was managing to keep up with appropriate positive reassurances about myself and my treatment and I hoped I gave a satisfactory picture that I was doing OK, under the circumstances anyway.

It was becoming difficult to avoid some of the more direct questions, not because I wasn’t able to talk about them, it was more that I just didn’t understand how the difficult information might be interpreted. Any adverse reaction here in the rather harsh environment and under the scrutiny of the staff was the last thing either of us needed; a scene of any kind would no doubt be dealt with summarily. Fortunately, once I had slowed my heart rate to nearer normal, it seemed he was more interested in the actual prison system rather more than the circumstances which got me here. It reached the point where I had to try to calm his general enthusiasm and rising voice, to keep us out of anyone’s frame of interest.

Once past the obvious subjects, we had started to stray into more day-to-day things, business, home and general ‘people’ issues. Up to this point I had always been the problem solver of the family and had to bless his enthusiasm for trying to take on some of my previous roles. Unfortunately, and rather obviously, that was going to prove impossible or even harmful. This was all very difficult to try to explain without getting into other matters, or let out too much information about my activities. Ultimately of course, I had no way of stopping his attempts to pick up things from the point I had disappeared; he was willing but just not too able. In the end, after much repeated insistence, I hoped we had an understanding on the matter and the outline of a plan for what he could or should do.

Eventually, the conversation was starting to go around and around in circles and I rather uncharitably felt the need to get away from it. Fortunately, the two hours which the afternoon visitors occupied were nearly over, I had tried not to look at the clock as it was out of my direct line of sight and would have been painfully obvious but, I needed it to move on now. As the hands moved slowly closer to four o’clock, we moved the discussion onto future visits and the tension softened a little. Having outlined who I had put on the list, he suggested others who might have been added, most of whom I mentally rejected my general veto point being too much too soon being but we were thankfully interrupted before I had to explain myself.

“Start to say your goodbyes please ladies and gentlemen,” the first visit was over.

Officers had been rather discreet during the visiting time, not that I had paid much attention to them, but it was noticeable that they were now adjusting their positions for what I imagined was the more difficult part of the whole event. As there were about 60 or 70 visitors in the hall and only one security system to get through, I suggested it might be a good idea for him to leave sooner rather than later to avoid the crowds; he didn’t want to leave at all. It was never going to be easy but I needed to move the separation on quickly for my own sake as much as his so I took the lead. Another hug and tear dampened kiss and I pushed him off in the direction of the visitors exit. Sitting down quickly, but not wanting to look about too much, we did manage a last wave before he disappeared. A quick glance sideward showed I was not the only one finding the conclusion of the visits emotional. It was discreet and all rather macho, but we all three seemed to be suffering similar emotions now. Picking at the last piece of a chocolate biscuit, I didn’t know what to expect next. As the VP tables were on the outside edge of the hall, all I could do was sit staring at the wall; it had seemed a good idea our backs were to the rest of the attendees.

Without the benefit of seeing what was going on behind me, my over active mind did its usual thing and filled in the blanks with a wide verity of implausible possibilities. The noises were unfamiliar and I felt desperate to look around to piece it all together, but I didn’t want to run the risk of being the focus of the other, non-VP, prisoners. Although I could just make out an officer standing near us, the movement behind us was generally increasing as some of the inmates were starting to get restless now their own visitors had gone. In my head, I felt the cold blade of a knife slide between my shoulders, one of the thugs affecting an unwarranted revenge for me being a nonce, a kiddie fiddler, a queer. The image was all too realistic and when it was realised by the touch on my shoulder, my nerves reacted and I physically jumped away; it had scare me half to death. An involuntary look round showed it was just an officer, she nodded an instruction to go back to the waiting room with the other two. They were already on the move. We were all body searched once more back into our room. Curiously these checks were much more thorough than during the inward process, contraband would be the obvious target, I had nothing to hide; the event was uneventful.

If you did try to smuggle something in, you would have to endure a more rigorous search procedure; fortunately, in all my many visits I never had to sample that delight. However, after every session there would be a few bodies taken out of the hall before the rest of us could leave, and into what I was told was a ‘special’ suite. Here, a full strip search, internal as well as external, would confirm or dispel officers’ suspicions or observation of a prisoner’s blatant stupidity. There was an x-ray chair for the less accessible orifices, but none of this stopped the most determined in their attempts of trafficking. To stop it all together they would have had to treat everyone the same, the practicalities of which would have taken longer than the visit itself. In the end, it was just a numbers game and because of that of course, all sorts of illegal substances and contraband slipped through every visit, every day.

The most fascinating items I heard about were the mobile phones, including chargers; I know they were small these days but the plug? It was interesting to visualise at least. As far as I could make out, the victims of these twice daily intimate searches were selected based on a combination of the regulation percentage quotas, observation during the visit and your past or present history. With only ever a maximum of four VP prisoners Allowed per session, it allowed us sufficient protection purely by the ratio factor although it was not unheard of for our kind to play the smuggling game.

“Sit and wait lads, we’ll get you off as soon as we can,” the officer locked the door again.

Outside in the hall the visitors had all gone, locked out and safely on their way home before the rest of the prisoners were allowed to move from their seats. The delay to get back to the wings gave me the time to safely take in the diverse populace from the many other parts of the prison. Knowing the animosity which there was towards us, as VPs, it was hard to keep focused on the dangers but, it was all out there to soak up danger or not. Parading right in front of me were all the many hair styles, tattoos, muscles, attitude, to put me as close to heaven as I was to a bruising hell. With no idea what I could do with the information and the feelings which this still covert assessment was stirring up, I was glad of my mental box system and secreted it all away; for now at least. After a few harmless but still quite intimidating non-verbal threats towards us through the glass, only some of which were returned by the other two, an officer eventually came into the waiting room. She was mid-way through a radio request to take ‘three from the visitor’s hall back to P wing’, several crackled and mainly unintelligible exchanges later, she seemed to get the clearance she was looking for.

“Right lads, let’s get you out of here before the rest of the crowd, shall we?”

It was a question none of us needed to disagree with.

Getting back to our wing on the other side of the estate would always be a bit of a challenge. It came down to a toss-up between getting out first and putting up with the haranguing from the other prisoners as we passed their cage or alternatively, sitting and waiting for all of them to be despatched to their own homes before we were allowed out. The need for separation would always be a point of issue every time we needed to go anywhere off the wing; this time we went first and I for one was glad of it.

The visitor experience during my time away was, overall, a positive one. My regular twice weekly allocations were always filled and often by people who I might not have expected, given the circumstances. All-in-all, other than the already expected dressing down for my obvious stupidity, no one was anything less than supportive. My youngest son only missed the opportunity to see me when some of the others said they wanted to come on their own for various, more personal reasons; he didn’t mind most of the time. As in any situation there were personality differences between some of the people on the list and I tried to manage these aspects as best I could. There were some occasions when I needed to have more frank discussions I didn’t really want others to be involved in. Other than that, everyone’s support was outstanding, better I should have enjoyed but something I wasn’t going to take for granted. There were old friends, new friends, a few of my wider family; they all had their opinions and shared them carefully. Surprise, annoyance, incredulity, sadness, disappointment, I had all of them and more at one time or another. Fortunately for me few people wanted, or seemed to need, a deeper understanding of my rather chequered background. Strangely, I was rather disappointed not to be able to have an outlet for it, now the bubble had been burst; keeping the feelings to myself didn’t really help.

There was even a little divine intervention. A lady I had only known vaguely in relatively recent years had written and asked if she could be added to my list. There had been letters from several people I knew, I doubted most were ever in possession of the full facts, but their offers of broad support had been very welcomed. This person had been more of a surprise but I processed the request more out of curiosity than anything else. Although I knew her to be a good, upstanding member of the community, our paths had only crossed on irregular occasions, what on earth could this be about? Fearing the worst for some reason, the initial visit rolled onto the calendar.

The details of the visit itself are only relevant to the two of us but overall it seemed her faith in me, had been driven by her faith in a much higher power. My own religious belief had been patchy to say the least although I had always held some faith in the power of prayer, if not in direct intervention. Darrilyn had received her instructions from both the prison system and the higher power and now, here she was. If nothing else we had a good laugh and the occasional cry about it all, however inappropriate it might seem from the outside. Some of the difficulties surrounding my case and the extreme nature of the subject matter were touched upon in passing, but I always hoped for, and generally received, the understanding that there was a deeper appreciation of the wider person I was, rather than the image my current situation painted. Despite the rather dark side of my being, she brought something that seemed to offer a degree of hope and understanding if not redemption; not just yet. Whatever it was, I clung onto it then, and still do today.

If the voice of the divine had spoken to me at all, I hadn’t been listening but I was glad if a little puzzled at the route through which the messages were trying to get to me. That link, personal and spiritual, has lasted and strengthened to the present despite the many revelations that, for even the most understanding person, would have their toes curling up.

On a similar line the vicar of my original home parish, also arranged a visit but through the prison chaplaincy. When we came face to face on the wing one unsuspecting morning, I don’t know who was the more terrified. The cell door was opened by the ecclesiastical collared prison chaplain and he introduced the poor man into the confines of the space. With no real opportunity for a private meeting, my pad mate, but not Dave, he was ushered out to sit to read the paper with one of the wing officers on duty.

It turned out it was Nic’s first time inside such an institution and he did a very good job at holding his nerve as I tried to make it as comfortable as I could, emotionally that is; the bunks were just as hard as ever. As I had hoped, he was supportive but of course I also knew he was there as much for my long-suffering mother as for my well-being. Twenty minutes later, we exchanged appropriate thanks along with a prayer and I let the poor man go back to the real world, slightly more experienced if nothing else. He visited me once more when I was in the workshop, another first for him and I got a bit of a ribbing from the others for having my own direct line to the ‘big man’; I didn’t care. Just knowing there were people who held a little faith in me was good enough.

Understanding I most likely wouldn’t be struck down by a thunder bolt, I got myself onto the wings church list. There was a large chapel in the grounds but we VPs had to be kept out of the main stream of course and had to use somewhere else. A mixture of different worship events were taken by a wide range of Christian and non-Christian faiths each week. In a small room, up on the threes, anything up to twenty of us would gather to share communion, sing or at least try our best sometimes we would get all ‘happy clappy’, pray and proclaim but always be some sort of support for each other. It may have only been spiritually but it was very welcome. If nothing else, it was a chance to dress up in your best visitors’ shirt, have an hour or so out of your cell on a Sunday morning and share whatever you needed, with what were generally a nice if eclectic group of guys. What was most unexpected were how some of the most outspoken ‘hard men’ of the wing who would roll along, share their thoughts and feelings openly but it was obviously the reaction you might get if you were to take such things outside that small bubble of protection. We all had our own needs and different ways of sharing them; let’s say it was interesting and leave it at that.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, the more I integrated myself in this small Christian community, the more difficult thinking about my past life was proving to be. Trying to legitimise it, it was hard if not impossible not to wallow in the bold extremes of beauty and banality, attraction and excess which had been my addiction. Moreover, and mainly because of the perception of myself, I just couldn’t seem to find a happy place to fit into, even in the extreme miasma that is by default, a prison population. Even when I had been on the outside, with access to like-minded people, I must have felt the same so, why I thought it would it could be any different in here eluded me. Because of all this disarray in my head, a rather cloudier version of my imaginary glass safety wall was starting to appear.

As a youngster, I think I found some comfort by celebrating my differences, with and to myself if not in public. It was the only way I had found to make me feel better about my myself. It also allowed me to have what I considered to be an emotional safety net. My activity on the farm would have rocked the rest of my small part in the world to the core, if it had ever been found out but, that possibility was hopefully managed; with self-delusion in hand I don’t think I let it bother me despite knowing it should. To me, I had simply discovered and so was the beneficiary of, a world of pleasure no one else had access to; not in any circles I moved in anyway. Time, experience, and opportunity built this side of things into a life of debauchery which was secret and yet no less real than anyone else’s; it was also becoming almost impossible to imagine having to give any of it up.

Even with the onset of proper, or shall we at least say normal relationships, my inner cravings never went away completely. Nothing in the real world quite replaced the feelings and satisfactions I could get elsewhere. Whether it was because of, or maybe despite it, no-one ever quite fitted the absolute if extreme vision I had locked away in my head. Unfortunately, a pattern had been set and I could see few reasons to break it.

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