© Michael Marett-Crosby
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On the ladder I was no one, free from prison, free from friends. I rose above the sounds that bound my life. There were no orders up here and no rattling of keys, no doors to close ahead of me, only the sky. Passing a patch of rotting wall, I took some grit and crushed it. Dust rained on the people underneath.
I was no one but not alone. Faces hung at cell windows, shredded by the bars. Some guys called out, ‘Don’t do it, mate.’ More shouted, ‘Go on – jump!’ But I was listening to Joe Livesey. He talked from an ancient life. ‘What’s the script?’ he asked me and so I told him, ‘We’re on the last page. This is the end.’
I could have stayed there forever, always in between. But the gutter was within my reach. I climbed to the last rung. I saw that the roof had been patched and then patched again, a kind of chessboard. Yes, my move. I hauled myself up.
I’d dreamt of standing tall up here, becoming greater than the prison. I would look over its wings and yards and walls. Except a hard sun was waiting and it blinded me. I nearly fell.
I had made this possible, sending guys up on a rooftop protest through a skylight near the gym. I had asked them for one favour, that they would pull away some wire from across a certain window. Since then it had stayed loose, but that was not my doing. I knew how prisons worked – nothing got fixed.
My friend. The sun had stripped him of his face and that was kindness. I sensed the loose shape of his body and his clothes. But then I lost him in a gunfire burst of glitter. The wire round his throat was making diamonds with the sun.
He wore a necklace, one long trailing end still stapled to the roof. He’d cut himself, I noticed, made a polite smile of blood. I worried, which was stupid, that he’d injured his girly fingers. Never held a tool except his own, I’d used to joke. Not true.
‘They sent me up,’ I said. He knew that well enough. The prison owned us, feet, hands, arses, everything. I was here because the suits in their offices had consulted the manuals. Someone had phoned a two-pip chief. He’d sent a one-pip to the wing. Finally, it was the Grouse – she had come to find me. ‘Your mate’s gone mad,’ she’d said. ‘You’d better get up to the roof and bring him down.’
‘V.’ This was my friend, the only one who used my ancient name. ‘I’ve made it, V. Look at me. This is what I’ve done.’
We sat together, dangling our legs over the wall. The roof’s rubber skin felt mushy. Our bodies might leave dents, We were once here. I pulled his wire looser and got his blood on my hands. I wrote with it, a pale pink ‘No’ between the two of us. I thought of Barry Shenk and I remembered Mr Pie.
‘Look at the screws.’ My friend was pointing. ‘They love a day like this.’
We waved. They looked so small. I nudged him and he mock tumbled. He touched my hand. We laughed.
‘V, whatever I’ve got is yours. You know that, right?’
I didn’t answer. I had got used to the sunlight and I could see the main wall. I checked once more and, yes, there was nothing beyond prison for me. I turned back to my mate and looked at him. I smiled.
‘You are going to stay with me, aren’t you?’ he asked. ‘That’s why they sent you, isn’t it?’
‘I don’t care what they think they sent me for.’
An officer was shouting through a megaphone. He’d seen it on a cop film; it was giving him a hard-on, I would bet.
‘Grouse came for me,’ I said. ‘She knows we’re friends.’
‘She say that?’
‘She’s alright, that one.’
‘Not pretty, though.’
‘Was Farve around?’
My friend must have forgotten, must have been mixing now with our dead days when Farve had made us more like people than we should ever have been. ‘Farve would have reckoned my life was precious,’ he carried on. ‘He said that about Mr Pie.’
‘Believed it too.’ We shook our heads.
The screws were massing at the ladder. It was time for their lunch.
‘You ready?’ I asked.
My friend looked at me. ‘V, you know I love you, right?’
‘Don’t be so gay.’ I shoved him to show I understood. ‘I’ll see you wherever we end up, okay?’
‘You really think…’
I stood. ‘It’s time.’
He rose beside me and his diamonds shone. He looked. I felt his like and unlike stare.
We touched again.
I heard the wire ripping through his neck.
Now I was free.
Part One – Of less than men
When did it start? When Ryan died? Or was it with Joe Livesey, or maybe with Mr Pie? No, nothing so proper – it all began with Scrimp, his body in my space. I was trying to do something that mattered. But ‘V, V,’ Scrimp said, that insect whine of his. ‘They’re sending a new guy up here. He’s in Reception now and crying, right messed up.’
I didn’t want Scrimp in my office, a storeroom off the prison library with a lumber of dead books that were not dead but had to look so, hiding what I did from other people. ‘V’s got this nice gig,’ was what I wanted them to say, ‘gets paid for doing nothing, sits there like a king, nice one.’ Not true. None of them could ever know my work.
Scrimp knew that this was trespass. He tried to make himself look sweet, that Jelly-Baby smile, oh please eat me. ‘It’s a new guy,’ he tried again. ‘I thought you’d want to know. He is a real loser, V, I swear it.’
Scrimp. There was one like him in every jail, pinched and crater-faced and never quite alive. With outstretched hands he begged for notice, surviving off scraps of news. Scrimp was useful, I’ll admit, but he was first of all an irritating prick.
‘Well, you’d know about losers,’ I said, taking off my glasses. I’d read about specs in books, had found this pair in a dead man’s bag out by the bins. ‘What does he look like?’
‘Old, a total muppet. He’s got a manky beard. Screws were trying to sort him and he was crying real bad.’ Scrimp lowered his voice. ‘I reckon he’s a nonce, V, fat, the way they are. We should give him a name, V. We...’
‘I don't care what you think.’ I didn’t. ‘Where are they putting him?’ I knew the answer really – it had to be the gym. Twenty bunks and almost full, I still called it by its older, kindly name.
‘No. That’s the thing,’ said Scrimp. ‘That’s what I’ve come to tell you. Word is he’s going to share with Hamilton, three down from you.’
Scrimp was wing bog-washer, mopped the urinals by the screws’ office. He heard their talk. They never noticed him. Now I considered what he’d said. ‘If he’s put in with Hamilton, then he won’t last a week.’
‘You bet,’ said Scrimp. ‘That Hamilton, he’s hard. I reckon there’ll be war.’
‘Get lost,’ I said and looked away. But then I threw the guy a scrap. ‘Sit with Mophead and me at lunch. Try not to be a jerk.’ If Scrimp had had a tail, it would have wagged. ‘Now go away. I’m busy. Shut the door. Stay on the other side.’
He closed me in and I went back to work.
Which was the way things went. News, like people, mattered for a moment and then was gone. An old guy in here might live or die, most probably would get shifted. Whichever, forget him.
The 18th of October, 2009. It started with the hope and lie of shining sun. Ryan and I were out of jail and living in a hostel, ate breakfast at the Rainbow with guys we knew and didn’t, waiting for the next crime, all of us, it seemed. The caff made tea the prison way, powder and coffeemate because in jail the milk was sour. It clagged into a sludgy brew, tasted of home and tears.
I looked up, remembering the new guy and my most recent first night, the van from court much like a taxi home. It took me to Bellerton, my usual London nick, and I was walked up to Enhanced without an hour in Reception. ‘Tell the Grouse I'm back,’ I told a screw. Banged up in my single cell, I’d thought of Judge John Poolton, purple, sentencing. ‘An habitual criminal,’ he had called me in court. Whereas I knew what I was, wrote myself on my cell wall as soon as the door locked me safe. I still had it on my wall, the formula to explain me: ? man + (love – hate) = who I am
I wrote it out again, ? man, my equation. I was born with bites taken out of me. The hate was easy, everywhere. Love was never much. But in prison I had mates and they counted, so I survived. The mathematics worked.
I straightened my paper so that it rested above the fraction. ? man was writing Ryan’s story. This was what I was for.
I had an empty day ahead. I’d sit it out in the public library. There were other men who served their time there and we each had our programme: one would read every newspaper, the next a clutch of magazines. There was another who worked through back numbers of computer rags. Me, I was carrying on the work I’d done in prison except out here no one paid me.
Then Ryan bounced in, his new idea face like silver, brighter than the lights. I tried to smile. But Ryan, he never saw when he was in a sparkle. He’d scrubbed himself and shaved, put on a new shirt. It wasn’t his. A few of the caff’s tossers turned to leer, a pretty boy and they were starved of youth. But I did not care for their eyes. I turned, counting them off: one for you and two for you and three, you over there. That made them look away because they knew who I would become when we all landed back inside.
‘This is it, V!’ Ryan talked under his breath, as if keeping a secret. ‘I’m off to see a guy and there’ll be money, easy money, money for us.’
Dreams made him soar. Ryan believed. There was always a pot of gold, a perfect girl. Every few days he’d start some scheme and this would be the one for sure, he knew it. Tea got dumped in front of him – it just arrived in here – and Ryan drank. His hands were shaking. I saw he’d painted up his nails to make them shine.
‘Take a breath, mate, I would,’ I said. ‘What is it this time?’
On the inside, I was light. In jail, Ryan lived in fear. But outside prison he was glitter. I became shadow.
‘Can’t tell you.’ He reached across the table and grabbed my hands, a thieved gesture. ‘But it’s for us, V,’ he said. ‘Really. This time we’ll be sorted.’
‘Drugs?’I asked. It had to be. What else did Ryan know? I took my hands away. ‘If it’s shipping smack inside through that bent screw, then no way. It’s a crazy gig.’
That had been the last time but one, arranging passes to Wormwood Scrubs in babies’ nappies. With the PO taking a cut and money to rent a pitch on Du Cane Road, there was no cash and only risk. Besides, I hated drugs. That was my Mum’s business but I had not followed in the family trade.
‘It’s not that, V. No way. This is straight. It’s our chance to start again, I promise.’
‘Christ, who is it now?’
‘Thanks for the compliment.’
There she was, in front of me, the ten ton Prison Officer we called The Grouse. She had eyes of roadside snow, a face built out of mashed potato, hips like overtaking trucks but she was ours, not that we owned her but she was the decent thing. She stood now as she had back on that first night when she’d unlocked me and looked and said, ‘I see they’ve sent you back.’
‘Yeah, couldn’t keep away,’ I’d answered
‘No shakedown in the Scrubs or Belmarsh? Someone must love you.’
It’s you who love me. So Joe Livesey said. But Livesey was a liar. ‘Came back to see you, Miss,’ I’d said. ‘Wouldn’t want you banged up on your own.’
‘What they give you?’
‘A bit under a handful.’ A handful, five fingers for five years.
Grouse never spoke about our crimes. Judgement was someone else’s job. Hers was to make this place survive and then to get off shift alive.
‘What’s up?’ I asked her now.
'You remember the deal?'
'What deal?’ I asked because I liked to rattle her.
The deal. The deal that wasn't done and never. What could she need from me, the Grouse with her uniform and keys and cuffs? Answer – a lot. She wanted peace and so did I, her job but my life. So she had given me this room, this place to work, a thing like freedom. And Grouse? She got her man. ‘What’s this about?’ I asked again.
‘There’s a new guy coming to the wing.’
‘I heard.’ I enjoyed that. She had received a form, a call from some Assistant Governor. I had Scrimp, his hand down a u-bend and his ears working for me. ‘What about him?’
‘We need an empty cell.’
‘Our chance,’ Ryan said again.
‘I heard.’ And I had heard, just not from him. He had borrowed the line as well.
I could have torn his dream up. ‘Remember, Ryan, how these things always turn out.’ I could have told him not to do it. He would obey me. But Ryan was my friend and I liked his glowing. I would be there to pick him up at the far end. So ‘That’s great, mate,’ I said. ‘It really is. You do whatever. Ask me for anything you need.’
He smiled at me. ‘You pay for tea?’ He stood to go.
‘Hey, Ryan?’ I followed him to the door. His eyes were on the street and the beyond, but he looked back. ‘You’d tell me if this was bad stuff, right?’
‘It isn’t. Why? Are you afraid to go back down?’
‘No. But I’m not staying out here on my own.’
I watched him skip through the crowds.
I finished my drink sadly, couldn’t lose the sound of Ryan’s words. ‘Our chance to start again’ – that was the creed of prison priests and psychs with earnest faces, seeing promise because otherwise there’d be no job for them. Ryan and I had heard it from the Probo man who did us, an alright bloke but living in a magic land. ‘Make separate lives from your pasts,’ he’d told us. ‘This is your chance to start again.’ Now Ryan was repeating their sacred chant, to start again, to start again.
I felt this day would end in badness. But I still pulled Mice and Men off the public library shelves. I loved its bottled promise, ‘Live off the fat of the land.’
Interrupted from my writing by,
‘You the library guy?'
They never left me alone, not in the library where I had been, not in my cell where I was now. ‘Who’s asking?’
He had moved into my world from B wing with a reputation – keep away. B Wing was a silted river where everything was drugs. Few escaped. So had Hamilton come to us because he’d earned it: blood tests, cell searches, the works? Nobody knew, only that we had gained this six foot square and smileless man, JCB hands, a face best in the shadows, not our undimmed prison lights.
'Find me later.'
Back to my own words
And I still had Of Mice and Men in my hands when Scrimp slid in and found me. He tapped me on the shoulder. I elbowed him in the balls. I was getting to a good bit in the book. He pestered me, ‘V, V, you’ve got to hear this,’ as if I had to do anything he told me. But when I looked up I saw he looked like shit. ‘What?’ I said. ‘What do you want?’
He touched my arm. ‘V, Ryan’s dead.’
I stopped, looked at what i had written and then stepped out of my cell.
Mophead was lounging on the landing, waiting for lunch. Men flowed around us. So did screws. ‘Check out the face on that one,’
Mophead said. ‘He must be new. Why would anyone take a job in here?’
I knew the answers, none that good. For a few, sure, it was obvious – they were bullies and we were the last lawful hate. But fuck-off merchants like that, they were rare and getting rarer, fifty-somethings now and tired of us. As for the rest, most screws were not so far away from being lags, big guys or ugly lasses, bits of lives but not that much. There were a few who believed they might do good, a couple like Grouse who bent the rules because they had to live here. The odd one could be used. But it was money kept them going, that and the routine. They watched us now as every day through PO-weary eyes.
‘They get paid for doing nothing,’ I said.
‘Not much dough, though,’ Mophead mused. ‘But then what else would this lot do?’
Fair point. Clothes taut, clothes sagging, their uniforms seemed made out of regret. Their shirts just stretched around some mighty paunches. ‘Not pretty, are they?’
‘Nor are we.’
‘Joe Livesey was,’ I said and smiled, remembering.
Mophead was right. We were a rancid bunch. We wore yesterdays across our skins, too many tattoos of girls’ names except the girls belonged to other people now – we kept the stains. There was an awful sameness to our clothes. We all had wankers’ stares.
I noticed Mophead sniffing at the air. A screw had just walked past us and we’d caught the reek of elsewheres, places in this prison we would never see: the raging A and B wings, the leer-and-lost of VPU. Some of them were starting shift. They smelt of women or, more often, decent chips.
Then the bell rang. We trooped to lunch. Mophead and I sat at the table that we liked. Scrimp was with us today and we abused him for a while. He loved it. But he was boring and I drifted off, looked over the familiar scene, the heaving food hall, guys eating, guys trading, spitting, arguing, screws too, a wild land. Everywhere was territory. It was the same with single cells, I thought, noticing Hamilton – he ate alone. When they are all you have, you fight for them.
I got up and I wandered. I asked about a bit. Hamilton was the big shit no one dared to call a shit because his knuckles wore skin stripped from men’s faces.
'Get in with Hamilton in the showers,’ I said to Scrimp after I’d not eaten. We were back on the wing and Scrimp was getting changed. Standing at his cell door, I saw his folded chest, some stringy hairs around his nipples, skin like crumpled paper rescued from the bin.
‘Aw, come on, V.’
‘What, you picked out better flesh? Just talk to Hamilton. Find out what he wants from me.’ Scrimp sloped off. But then it struck me that Scrimp was being useful again so I threw out a warning. ‘Touch him and he'll kill,’ I said. ‘He’s not a man for you.’
Writing once again.
Ryan was dead.
It was a stupid, half-arse story. All I could say to it was no.
No to what Scrimp told me, no to the possibility. ‘We had tea together, down the Rainbow. People don’t die like that’. Friends’ deaths came carefully. I had read books. Deaths were prepped.
Now Scrimp was saying Ryan had been crushed on his bike between two cars. No way. Too quick, that was, over in a haze of blue lights, someone mopping up the blood off the street, a traffic jam and then back to normal.
‘Get away, Scrimp.’
A sick trick, I knew it. Scrimp lied. This was just the sort of game he’d play – no more Ryan, so I’m your friend, I really matter now. I picked Scrimp up and walked him from the library to the street, pushed him against a wall and said, ‘I will flatten your head right now, right here, if you’re pushing crap on me.’
‘No, V,’ he said. ‘No, it’s true. No, V. No!’
‘Then how d’you know?’
No more words for now.
I showered later and alone, a little privilege. I was under three jets at the same time. But then Scrimp was back and wide-eyed, the creep. 'You should check out Hamilton’s tattoos,’ he said to me.
'I don't think I'll be doing that.'
'Seriously, V. Up each arm, a whole load.’
'I sent you there to talk, not cruise. What does he want?'
‘To see you.’
‘Tell him to come now.’ There was no pleasure in washing with Scrimp’s stares staining me.
Hamilton waited outside my pad door. I liked that. ‘Come in,’ I called, sitting in my manky chair. ‘Tell me what you want.'
He perched on my bed, one big guy, wide and perilous. When he spoke, his voice was strangled, as if underused. 'A letter,’ he said. ‘I need a letter. Someone told me you do words.'
‘Who told you that?' He shrugged. I was slotting this man, one more who couldn't read or write. No doubt he needed a sorry-sorry for some court: ‘I regret,’ ‘I've changed so much,’ ‘Please, be kind to me.’
I considered him. I wasn't a gang master but there was peace to maintain. Mophead was coming to the end of his stretch. Scrimp was a rat. Hamilton, though, Hamilton...
‘What's the date?’
'When are you up in court?'
He lived a tightrope life, I saw. His face swallowed his eyes as he made sense my question. His fists clenched. But he pulled himself back. He said, though only just, 'I'm done with courts.'
'I thought the letter was to a judge.’
He did not seem to understand. ‘I want a letter to me.’
After that he talked in hailstorms, bursts of words between pauses. ‘I'm working in the gardens' and then 'We grow hanging baskets.’ I knew it, a loser's game, flowers sold to people who thought buying prison produce meant they cared. Maybe this was where he’d earned Enhanced – Hamilton, hard-working, a heavy lifter, didn't shirk too much. 'They put me in the Prison in Bloom group,’ he said, Bloomers or Pansies as they were called – not him, I’d bet. They’d worked on some competition, best flowers in prison. 'We won.’
‘I heard.’ There would be a plaque in some office.
'There's going to be a picture in the local paper, us with the flowers. We can get a copy.'
Cameras watched us all the time. We never saw their snaps. Our only pictures were police mugshots, photoshopped to look the way we should.
Hamilton said nothing. ‘Get the picture, then. What’s the problem?’
‘They’ll only give us one if there’s a letter asking for it. The picture has to be for someone on the out.’
‘And?’ But as I asked, I understood. There was no one.
He spoke fast now, wanting this to end. 'I’ll pay. Whatever you want, take it.'
Pay, that was, to get a letter to himself from a lag three cells down he didn't know. Pay because it might seem then that he mattered to someone. He’d get the picture, look at it and send it to a nowhere address. Maybe it would remind him that he was alive.
I did not know the guy. A basic rule of jail was Do Not Get Involved. But Grouse wanted this share sorted. I would need Hamilton on side. Maybe he would let the new guy bunk with him. Also, Hamilton might be useful. He was big. He could fight.
And was obedient. Somewhere he had learnt how words gave other people power.
‘I'll do it,’ I said. ‘I’ll get a letter posted through a screw. I’ve someone who can sneak it past the gate. Do you want to have a mother, brother, what?’
‘You sure?’ That was a lot to give a stranger.
‘I’m sure. What’s the cost?’
The share? No – he was going to be my guy. I would protect his single cell, find some other way to sort the man Scrimp had seen downstairs. ‘The cost is this. You stick to me.’
Then it was over, all the talking Hamilton could do. He stood to go. Except not quite because half out of my cell he turned and he looked back. 'What is it they call you? I mean, I know, but I'm not sure I got it right.'
He was asking for permission. 'You can call me V,’ I said.
‘It stands for Voice.’
I needed to get to the library. Except Mophead was talking, the way he did.
‘So I’m counting hours, not days. Hours, great lumps of them. Sometimes I forget and that’s it, ten more gone. Sleep’s a double blast. I love mornings and the crossings out.’
Mophead had served hard time. Last year he had filled in papers, waited, waited, waited more. There’d been a hearing, Parole talking to Mophead’s files before eventually they’d come to see him, an ex-judge, a psych and the public protection advocate to plead that he should stay. Then waiting and more waiting until suddenly Mophead received his lightning strike – parole. He was leaving any day now. The door was almost open.
‘Hamilton, the big guy. He is one of us.’
Mophead heard but didn’t listen, lost to his gate-fever, the last sickness of prison life. Mophead was mind-walking the steps, wing to gate and gate to sunshine: which screw, what clothes, will they try to shake his hand?
‘Joe said he’d be there for me,’ Mophead said, talking more to himself than to me. ‘Then we’ll get hammered.’
‘At the gate. Joe Livesey’s going to meet me?’
‘That’s what he said.’
‘Don’t...’ I stopped myself from saying, ‘You can’t trust Joe Livesey’s silver words.’ I didn’t want to break Mophead. ‘That’s something,’ I managed. ‘You walk out and the two of you, you have a drink on me. Then don't look back, not ever. Forget us.’
Mophead had once been Naheed Raza, down with a story of some white trash girl who’d framed him. It had kept him clean a while, his faith in innocence. But he'd been skin-marked brown in his first jail, a double bind of Muslim pride guys building a ghetto and some serious POs working to break it. He’d been the weak link and they’d forced him down a walk of real shame, messed him with their strip searches, squatting while they peered inside. They told him they could count his piles, grapes hanging on a branch. ‘Want us to operate?’ they’d asked him. ‘Want us to harvest them?’ Mophead told how he had tried to pretend none of it mattered. ‘But, V, I couldn’t, not with screws smirking up my crack.’
He’d kept a picture from a time before. He’d asked me to keep it safe. The snap was taken in some club and showed a long-faced guy – beard, big nose, dark eyes, a cheeky smile. He’d have got girls. Best thing about him was the thick bush of his hair, in-a-mess-tidy.
It made him seem clever and worth knowing.
He’d not lasted that way. Those same screws had paid an inmate barber who’d hacked the past off him so that he came out with his head half cancered and half nerd. He’d looked that way when they brought him to Bellerton. It’s what had raised my eyes to him, a question, ‘What man looks as bad as that and doesn’t try to hide?’
‘Why didn’t you mash me?’ Mophead asked suddenly. ‘You could have got me slayed back then.’
‘Why should I have?’
‘Brown guy with a white girl screaming rape? Come on – you ever spent time in jail?’
‘I liked you.’
That didn’t seem enough. ‘But did you believe me, V? Did you believe I hadn’t done it?’
I shrugged. ‘Does it matter?’
He let it go. One of those long prison silences spread between us. Then, ‘I’m going to keep on with the name you gave me: Mophead.’
‘On the out?’
‘Some guys thought it was a racist rag. Made some white-boy friends for me, that one. But you know the real why.’
He’d never had to ask. Mophead was a baptism of the memory of him. It meant this place could not kill him a second time.
‘I know. Hey, I’m going to be free.’ He smiled at me, then left.
Talk of freedom screwed me up. I could not write. Instead I toyed with my equation, putting Mophead through its mangle rollers, love against hate. He had no family worth knowing, just an uncle up Horsforth way, so love was all Joe Livesey at the gate. Christ, that looked slight. As for hate, Mophead had forgotten what ex-con meant out there. Wait until he tried for his first job.
I turned away from the number he scored. My pad was a plain place. There were a few tits on the wall to show others I wasn't gay, some books but not the ones that mattered, my TV, a piece of board above the bog because I hated its mouth waiting for me to feed it. There was an X-Box under the table, something I did not use but there to be a sign that I’d earned every privilege prison could give to me. Now I closed the door as far as I could – only free men can shut themselves inside – and it partly blotted out the voices and the footsteps, the general rage. I heard men lost and men surviving, a few enjoying the clink too much.
I sat and I thought of Mophead leaving. He had been my mate a while. Now it was to end. Without him I'd be less, that equation again.
But I would stay V for Voice.
I had many lesser names – Aaron Bingham was one. But I was Prison, Crime and Other People’s Fear. When good guys looked in the mirror, I was staring out to keep them straight. So I was Necessary. I was Object-For-Opinions. I was Keeping-Police-Paid.
But Voice was what I called myself, Voice for dumb men’s talking. Guys here fucked and shitted, bloodied hell. I had been lucky. Someone had once taught me how to speak.
‘Want an early lock-up?’ The day had gone, that prison drift; no matter, there were always tomorrows. Now the Grouse was at my door, a pile of files under her arm.
‘I wouldn’t mind,’ I said.
‘How you doing with this share for Hamilton?’
‘This matters to you, doesn’t it.’
Wing POs weren’t stupid. That waited until promotion. Unpipped and unrewarded, they understood that putting some old guy in with a dead-eyed loner like Hamilton might mean blood on the walls. But they could not tell the management – not ‘We cannot control this place’. Instead they’d got the allocation order and had delayed it, screw to screw. For what? For me to get it done.
Not that the Grouse was going to get off easily. ‘Christ,’ I said, ‘you’re the uniform. You’ve got the power. If you don't want Hamilton to share, get this new guy shifted somewhere else.’
Her eyes drained. She wasn’t seeing me but men in suits behind their desks. ‘You know it’s not that simple. If you...’
‘If I do it, then it’s a lag thing. You keep your nose clean.’
She pulled something from among her papers. ‘You want this or not?’
‘What is it?’
‘Never seen it before.’
I stood. I was taller, leaner, younger, used but not used up. She had four-pint-bottle breasts – get lost in those, you’d never breathe again. Except the Grouse was holding something in between us now, a hard-backed book, A4, black cover, red spine and red ribbon. It was the sort important people used to decide others’ lives. I took it in my hands but she did not let go. ‘Is this for me?’ I asked her.
‘It’s an extra. I’m keeping my side of the deal.’
‘There was no deal.’
There might have been a smile somewhere in her mashed face. ‘Sure there wasn’t.’
Did she want more from me? I sometimes thought we might make out. Girl sex inside – I’d never had it, but Joe Livesey reckoned she might take me. ‘Hey, post a letter for me, would you?’
‘Who to? Why?’ She was suspicious, had to be. Letters were meant to go through a search. Some were read.
‘For Hamilton,’ I said.
This time she smiled for sure, I saw it. ‘Of course.’
Later, on unlined paper, the only kind we can buy here – no one knows why.
It had to be son. I did not know Hamilton’s first name. And son meant that the letter was from a mother. No one in here had dads.
What kind of mother? It was easy to do weepy-sad, I have loved you so long. But that was out of films. I scrawled an invented address on top: 19 Primrose Road, there was always one of those somewhere, then London, SE20. It might exist.
A picture would be great. We do still think of you.
We, a distant family, maybe an aunt or two. Any brother or sister was far away. But still, he was remembered – I saw a past locked in some photo frames set around the TV.
Send it to us. We’ll keep it safe. Your room is as it was.
And will stay so. V will see to that. You are part of me. No share for you.
We hope you’ve got some friends.
We miss you.
We’re always here for you.
It was improbable enough.
And then to the book. This was what I was for, this story of my dead. I wrote on the contents page first, one subject only, Two Thirds Man. I copied out the letter I’d just written. Then I turned to page two, a clean double spread, and there I wrote out Ryan’s story from the beginning and finished it as well. At last. At last.
‘No, V,’ Scrimp said. ‘No, it’s true. No, V. No!’
‘Then how d’you know?’
‘Then how d’you know?’
Through the whispering that bound us guys who’d been inside. Besides, it was too stupid, that death without a story. Even Scrimp would think up something better. So there was only no and more no, no when he said, ‘It’s true,’ no when I saw Ryan’s body in the morgue that afternoon. ‘Is it him?’ a goon copper asked, standing beside me. I said yes to him but I meant no because the stuff on the slab was not who Ryan had been.
Then no as I learnt more of what had happened, bits that made some sense but more that didn't. In a hurry, the fuzz said, skipping through traffic, jumped a red light and yes, sure, that was Ryan, this was one of his good days. But hundreds of quid in his pocket and not a trace of gear? ‘I don’t know, no way,’ I told the cops. ‘You’ve got it wrong.’
No too when I went round to tell his family. ‘We know,’ his hard-core mother told me. ‘I can’t approve of what he did.’ That wasn’t her.
‘The police said there was money. You take it, use it to bury him. We won’t be there.’ But Ryan had once known a sort of love.
When all the no’s were done and only death was left, I crawled back to our place. It was an emptier hole than I had ever known. I would tidy Ryan away and then I’d crime, go back to jail. I would be safe as two thirds of a man.