The night was cold and inky black and he tossed on his narrow pallet trying to sleep, listening to the night sounds of the other men – the sighing, moaning and the unconscious yet restless movements. The cold ate into the marrow of his bones, chilling him and he pulled the dirty, threadbare blanket tighter around him and prayed for the dawn and the watery sun that might thaw him out. He drew his legs up so that his knees were under his chin and rubbed his feet with his hands. God, they were so cold he could barely feel them. Oh God, would the dawn never come? Even when it did, he knew it wouldn’t make much difference.The few lousy minutes in the yard, the tasteless food, the work – as usual he knew that, after a few hours, he would be praying for night and sleep to come as he always did. The unbroken, monotonous, endless wheel would have just gone round once more. Another day, another lifetime would have passed. God, if only Icould die, no-one would really miss me, no-one has seen me for so long now that it would make no difference if I died or not.
Someone near him in the darkness groaned and he jumped. Oh God, I can’t go on like this, he prayed. Let me out or let me die, I just can’t go on, oh please … If he got out, the first thing he would do would be to have a bath and then the food …God, what would he have?A drink first, I suppose, a glass of good whiskey would go down well – he could imagine it burning his throat and scorching his chest and squeezing his guts with its fiery grip. Perhaps a few of them. Then the meal, a bowl of chicken soup, thick with lumps of white chicken, warm and satisfying. Fingers of thick white bread covered in golden butter to dip in the soup and suck. Then a steak, covering the whole of the plate, rings of fried onion, crisp and light brown, he didn’t like the soggy ones though he’d eat them with relish if he got them now. Straight golden chips, plenty of them sprinkled with vinegar, perhaps a little pool of tomato sauce on the side to bring out the full flavour. Salt and pepper of course. Then what? A bowl of ice cream and pears, tinned ones in their syrup. He’d always loved ice-cream ever since he was a kid when his grandfather used to buy him ice cream cones when they went out for a walk together. Yes, definitely, ice-cream and pears.
He could barely remember the last time he had had it. It was a long time ago. A cup of strong coffee next, I suppose and a cigarette. Then another drink – another whiskey? Might as well have a bit of a change – a brandy! A brandy would go down well with the coffee. That would be the thing to have. Oh God, if only he could get out, he’d do anything. Anything. He’d go to the cathedral and pray, anything at all. He turned over on his side and shut his eyes. He shouldn’t have thought about the food, he could see it all now, set out on a long table, covered with a white cloth, everything, second helpings too. It was the worst thing he could have done – thinking like that. How was he going to face the slops this morning. Oh well, better not think about it, it would only get worse if he did. He crouched down into a smaller mound under the thin blanket and tried to see the brick wall which he knew was only inches from his face. He could see little bright lights flashing on and off and moving around, changing place, forming and holding patterns for a split second and then changing again. He couldn’t see the wall though. It was always like this in the darkness, he could see these little lights and didn’t know if it was his imagination or his eyesight. That’s another thing he’d have to do when he got out, have his eyes tested. For all he knew, he could be on the verge of going blind, some kind of vitamin deficiency. His eyes were always watering at all times of the day, especially when he was outside. For God’s sake, he told himself, stop thinking about it. Do you want to drive yourself insane? If you do, you’re going the right way about it. He turned over onto his other side and thrust his hands up under his armpits. God, his hands must stink, first his feet and now his armpits. Well, it wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t help it. What can’t be cured must be endured. Who used to be always saying that? He couldn’t remember, he couldn’t remember anything these days. He didn’t like the saying, it sounded smugly pious, like something out of a prayer book. All the same, you have to admit, he told himself it’s very true. – what can’t be cured must be endured.
He must have finally dozed off sometime because when he opened his eyes he could see the walls and the other men still sleeping. He was envious of them, the way they could sleep and forget the cold and the bad food and … and everything else. He wondered what the day was like, the small window was too high up in the wall for him to see out of, even if they stacked the pallets together. Not that it mattered, really, he’d still only get his handful of minutes outside in the yard no matter what the weather.
The door clanged open and the warden and two guards strode in, wrinkling their noses at the stench. God, it can’t be that late, those bastards must be early. Resentment swept over him and he felt like sobbing. They can’t even leave us a few extra bloody minutes in the morning. One of the guards bashed the butt of his gun against the door while the other kicked the men too slow to lurch to their feet. The warden waited, staring around the cell until all the men formed up a line before him.
‘Prisoner Blake, Joseph step forward.’
All the men stood still and some looked at him. He straightened up slightly, he wouldn’t show the bastard he was afraid, but his legs were trembling slightly and his own voice sounded different to his ears when he spoke.
‘Get your things together and come with me, quickly now.’ The warden snapped.
‘Why, where am I going, what’s going to happen to me.’
Even as he spoke he was surprised by the strength in his voice and best of all, the fact that he had asked a question. Was this really him?
‘I don’t want any nonsense out of you, Blake. Just do as you are told and come along. The governor wishes to see you.’
Tense with fear and expectation, he sat down on his cot and put his boots on. The lace broke and he fumbled awkwardly to tie them. The governor, what does he want to see me for. I haven’t done anything wrong. The bastards. He stood up, ready though his legs were still trembling and his hands were sweating.
‘Are you ready then, man. Have you got your things together?’ The governor asked.
He looked at him stupidly. ‘What things? All I’ve got is what I’m standing in. You took everything else when you brought me in here. I haven’t got anything else.’
‘All right, then, look sharp then and come along.’
He walked slowly and carefully out of the cell, looking back once over his shoulder. What kind of trickery was this? What was going to happen to him?
‘We’ll see you, Blakey kid. Good luck.’
‘Tell them what it’s all about, Blake.’
Don’t leave us for too long, kid.’
The heavy slamming of the door cut off the other men’s farewell cries. It was funny, really, the way they all called him kid, though he was older than all of them. He stood uncertainly in the corridor until the guard pushed him on, the warden striding ahead without looking back, his boots ringing on the flagstones, and the guards hurried him along after him.
‘What’s going to happen to me, lads? Where are we going?’ But the guards ignored him and urged him on at gun point.
They continued down the corridor, past the passage leading to the yard, turned left and went up a flight of steps, along a corridor and turned left again. The warden turned and looked at him with distaste.
‘Smarten yourself up, man. You are going to see the governor. Where is your self-respect?’
I’ve none, you’ve taken that away along with everything else, you bastard, he thought of saying but decided to keep his powder dry for the moment. He passed his hand over his greasy, wispy hair and one of the guards sniggered. The warden turned and knocked on a heavy wooden door before opening it.
‘The prisoner Blake, Jospeh, sir.’
The guard shoved him in the small of the back as he walked into the room, making him stagger and almost fall to his knees.. The governor sat behind a large desk with his back to the window. The sun, streaming in through the windows fell on his desk and he could see how dusty it was.
‘That will be all, Smith. Thank you.’The governor growled and the warden and the guards went out, closing the door behind them quietly.
He wasn’t able to see the governor’s lips moving.
‘Sit down, Blake.’ The governor pointed to a chair in front of the desk. Thankfully, he sank down on the chair and was able to see the man behind the desk clearly for the first time. He was very broad, verging on fat and his pink, smooth face had a babyish look at first glance. Looked at longer, the hard eyes and thin lips belied the infantile look.
‘A cigarette?’ He was leaning forward offering him a cigarette out of a carved wooden box.
He took one and suspiciously accepted a light. He shouldn’t have taken one, he realised as soon as he took his first drag on the smoke. Not on an empty stomach, especially as he hadn’t had one for so long. It was going to make him sick. He leaned over and stubbed it out carefully and put it in his pocket.
The governor leaned back in his chair and continued his appraisal. Suddenly he leaned forward, both forearms on the desk, a sheaf of official looking documents between them.
‘We are going to release you, Blake. Would you like that?’
He didn’t know what to say. It must be some form of a trick they were planning. The bastards wouldn’t release him just like that. He didn’t say anything.
‘What’s wrong with you, man? Don’t you want to be released?’
It was an effort to speak. His new found strength had dissipated
‘Yes, I do. I want that. It’s just … I don’t believe it.’
It must be some trick he told himself again. Don’t build your hopes on it, for God’s sake, otherwise, they’ll knock them all down. That’s it, they want me to hope and then they’ll destroy it. It’s just another lousy trick.
‘Look here, man. This is no trick. Your case came up for review and it has been decided to release you.’ The governor leafed through the papers arranged neatly in front of him and selected one.
‘Ah, yes, here it is. All you’ve got to do is sign this and you are free. I’m sure you’d like to get out, Blake, wouldn’t you? You are an old man now, you don’t want to to stay in here for the rest of your life, do you? You want to get out and enjoy your remaining years, don’t you? Settle down somewhere nice and live peacefully, isn’t that right. All you have to do is sign this.’ He pushed a sheet of paper and a pen across the desk.
Blake sat there, looking at him. I’ve got to have time to think. They are not going to release me after all this time. His hands were trembling and he was afraid to pick up the paper.
‘What does it say – the paper, I mean” he finally asked, nodding at it.
‘Just sign it, Blake and you are free to go. You can have a shower and change your clothes and you can walk out of here a free man. Hurry up now, I haven’t got all day.’ The governor rummaged through the papers and put some in a desk drawer.
Slowly, he picked up the the sheet of paper and the pen and crouched awkwardly over the desk. Oh please God, let this be true. I want to be free. I have got to get out of here. Please God, let me out. He uncapped the pen and glanced again at the large man on the other side of the broad desk. He was leaning forward, watching him avidly, his thick fingers drumming on the desk.
He put the pen down.’I want to know why I am being released.’
‘I’ve already told you, man.’ The governor snapped. ‘Your case came up for review and it was decided to release you.’
‘Why wasn’t I released earlier? Why have I been kept here? For so long? When I came in here, I had a full head of hair, now look at me.’ He leaned over the desk, his head bowed. ‘Look at me, my hair is falling out. Why did my case never come up for review before?’
The governor looked away, bored, his fingers drumming an impatient tattoo.
‘Hurry up, man. Sign it and you are free. You can walk straight out of here.’
He took up the sheet of paper again and squinted at it, reading it with difficulty. When he had finished, he read it again.
‘Why can’t I visit the men here after I have been released?’ He demanded. ‘Why can’t I see the ‘certain people’ I used to see before you dragged me in here? Why can’t I attend public meetings? Why do I have to check in with the police every week?’
‘Just sign it, Blake and you can go. I am sick of hearing you complaining. If you want to be released, sign it. If you don’t, get out of my sight. I haven’t got all day to spend on an old fool like you.’
The two men sat in silence. The broad strong man, sitting in the sunlight streaming into the lofty room, calmly reading a document, the dirty, haggard old man opposite him, sitting tense on the edge of his chair, looking at the paper in his hand.
‘Why do I have to sign this? Why can’t you just let me go just like you dragged me in here.You said yourself that the decision to release me has been made. Why can’t I just go?’ His voice was rising higher and he felt like having a cigarette now. He took the half smoked one out of his pocket and the governor, with a look of distaste, gave him a new one.
‘Look, Blake, do everyone a favour and sign. It’s just a formality and then you’ll be free to go.’ The governor’s voice had softened to match his words.
He took up the paper again and read it for the third time. He took his time, reading it slowly and carefully, his lips forming the words. When he had finished, he put it back down on the desk and put the cap back on the pen.
‘It’s no use, I can’t sign that I’d be betraying everyone and everything I ever did. Everything I spoke out for, everything everybody else fought for. That is not freedom you are offering – that’s a living death. I’d be ashamed and shunned by all I ever knew. It’s against all I ever …’
‘Alright, alright, Blake, that is enough. I have no desire to hear one of your political speeches again. That’s what got you in here in the first place. Now, for the last time, will you sign the paper?’
With an effort, he picked up the paper and tore it in half and then in half again and watched the pieces flutter to the floor.. The governor stood up quickly and marched to the door, flinging it open.
‘Smith, take the prisoner back to his cell on the double. Standard routine again.’
The guards wrenched him to his feet and frogmarched him out of the room and down the corridor. They walked back down the passage in silence until the warden turned suddenly and pushed him hard against the wall.
‘Ungrateful little bastard, aren’t you, Blake?’ he snatched the cigarette from his lips and dropped it on the stone floor and ground it out with the toe of his boot.’You’ll be sorry for this, Blake, mark my words, you’ll be sorry. Now, get moving.’
He didn’t say anything, his head hanging down so they couldn’t see his face. The bastards. God, I hate them.
They stopped outside the cell door and one of the guards unlocked it before pushing him roughly in and slamming the door behind him.
‘Hey, kid, are you all right?’
‘Tel us what happened. What did he want?’
The men clustered round him, eager and friendly.
‘C’mon kid, what did he say to you?’
‘Here, kid, eat this, we saved some for you.’
He pushed through them to his pallet without saying anything. He sat down and suddenly he began to cry, the sobs shaking his whole body. Through his tears he could see the men watching him anxiously and behind them the free and open world and a comfortable life. He raised his head and looked around him.
‘Oh God, I want to be free. I’ll do anything to be free, just let me out.’
He continued to sob openly, not wishing to hide his tears. Around him, the men stood silent and embarrassed.