Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Nothing But Time by Gerard Brennan

This is it, then.


Prison.


Stripped of my right to freedom. At the mercy of screws and rules and timetables. I’m a grown man, can’t even decide when to flick my own light out. Wish they could switch off my mind when the darkness comes. Maybe tomorrow I’ll ask somebody where I can get some pills. Control that much, at least. Or maybe I should be looking for something else. A shiv or a shank or a blade. Whatever the name; something to put holes in any bastard that comes near me.


It’s been four days. I haven’t fought to maintain my anal virtue. Struck lucky. No cellmate, you see. The guy I was meant to bunk up with died of an overdose the night before I arrived. Bad news for him, but it’s made life easier for me. I’m not going to be anybody’s bitch. I’ve seen the TV shows and the movies. Even read a few books. None of them were set in Northern Ireland, but you could bet the same thing happened in HMP Maghaberry. I saw some of those body-built freaks eyeing me up in the shower yesterday. Fucking fruits. I’ll stick my thumb in their eyes before any of them stick their steroid-shrivelled dicks in me.


My heart thuds like a jungle beat.


Lights out. I put down a book I’ve been trying to read. My mind keeps drifting. None of the words have stuck. I’ll need to start it again tomorrow night. Before I came in here, I heard the cells all had TVs and Playstations... sounded like a hotel. I’ve fuck all in mine. Sink, desk, chair, bunks and the dark. Don’t even have a toilet. You can shout to be let out for a piss in the middle of the night, but I just make sure I’ve emptied my bladder before they lock the cells. I need my sleep.


Food’s shite. That’s another myth. I heard that it cost more to feed a prisoner than a child at school. I don’t believe that anymore. Frozen chips and a microwave pie has been the best on offer since I got here. Stinking.


I half-doze for hours. Maybe all night. It can be hard to tell. I’m sitting up, legs swinging off the top bunk, when they unlock the doors. It’s been years since I quit, but suddenly I’m craving a smoke. I make a decision: First chance I get, I’m starting up again. And I’ll find drugs. Anything I can get, at all. Dope, E, coke, speed, meds -- fuck it, I’ll take heroin if I can get it. The shiv can wait. I’ll take care of the inner conflicts before worrying about the external.


I need drugs.


A quick piss-stop, then breakfast. A step up from gruel. A joyless refuelling. There’s laughter in one corner of the hall. A screw wanders over to investigate. I feel cold. The screw has his back to me. He’s laughing with the prisoners. Is that allowed? Another screw joins them. I scratch at my scalp. Dry flakes ball up under my nails. An urge grips me. I should look over my shoulder. Be alert. Senses tingle. But I’m safe here, right? Just being paranoid.


A heavy hand clamps down on my shoulder. Hot morning-breath on my ear.


“We remember you, you touting bastard.”


I try to shrug the hand off my shoulder. The grip tightens. Hot breath gets hotter. Heats my whole head. I’m almost choking on the sour smell.


“One of my cousins died in this shithole because of your loose lips. You’re fucked, son. I’m going to kill you myself.”


And that’s it. My real sentence.


The morning-breath retreats. Blood flows once again in my shoulder, but ghostly fingers remain. I shudder. The screws have stopped laughing. They’re on watch again. Not good enough. I’ve seen it now. They can be distracted. Long enough for a knife in the back to follow the blast of hot, sour breath in my ear. I’m so fucked.


I consider my juice. Leave it. I better forget the drugs for now. There’s no real escape here. They know. They all know. May as well tattoo TOUT on my forehead. And there’s no fight in me now. I’m at the bottom of this heap of scum. Lower than the thieves, dealers and murderers. I thought I had nothing but time for the next six years. But the promise of death twangs on my nerves now. I’ll be lucky to see six days.


Unless...


There are steps down from my place on the prison food chain. Some are worse than touts. Rapists and paedophiles. The lowest of the low. I’m just a little better than that. But just a little might be enough. Is this hope?


I scan the canteen. One of these dodgy-looking fucks can help me out. They’ll stick out like a sore thumb.


Ah, there you are.


In a corner of the canteen, a thin man sits. His eyes are puffed and ringed in purple fading to light blue to yellow. His nose is kinked and crimped. His face is scarred. This man has been through the wars. Worse. He’s in Hell’s waiting room. Those forced to sit at his table are angled away from him. He’s invisible for now. Insubstantial. Until the opportunity once again arises to punish him. Then, I imagine, he’ll be the most visible bastard in this place. For now, he picks at his food, snags the odd nibble and makes eye contact with no man.


I’ve found my new friend.


A bustle of activity and we’ve cleared our plates. I spend the morning in a head-spin. Screws tell me what’s what. Rules, rules, rules. Then a load of shite about rehabilitation. I have to choose a National Vocational Qualification. Horticulture sounds good to me. Might give me some tips for growing weed.


I say very little throughout the morning. One screw jokes:


“You’re very quiet. Didn’t you used to be a ten-pound-tout? Must have been quality over quantity, what?”


Fucking prick.


Lunchtime rolls around about thirty seconds before I crack up for good.


I try to eat, but I can’t. My mind races. I glance over my shoulder every two seconds. Then I notice the thin man with the battered face. The pervert. I keep an eye on him, and when we’re given permission to go to the recreation area, I shadow him. He takes a seat. Another corner. Nearby, a couple of big lads play pool. The pervert glances at them occasionally, but his eyes never linger. He’s on guard. Looking out for himself. Alone.


Like me.


I take a deep breath. Time to introduce myself.


The eightball is smooth and cool in my grip. One of the big lads complain. I ignore him. He reaches out to take the pool ball back. I slap his hairy-knuckled hand away. He’s surprised. Steps back. I breeze past. The blinkers are on now. All I can see is the lonely perv. And he sees me. Instinct stiffens him. There’s no doubt in his eyes. I’m here to do him harm.


It’s how it works in the movies. Show everybody how hard you are. Mash up some poor fucker and gain some respect. I get that, maybe somebody who matters will watch my back.


I grab a handful of the perv’s shirt. It’s a nice material. We don’t do prison uniforms here. I yank him from his seat. Some buttons ping away and skitter across the cold linoleum. I pull back my eightball-weighted hand. The way is clear. If I land it on his temple in the first shot, the rest of the beating won’t hurt him too bad. I’ll make a show of it. Make it look more vicious than it really is.


I stare into his eyes just as I’m about to pound him, expecting fear. What? He glares at me. His swollen lids frame mere slits of eyes. He’s not resigned to this beating. I pause. Worst thing I can do. The blinkers evaporate. Panoramic view. Dolby surround sound. Excitement. Shouting. Are they cheering for me or the perv? Why would they cheer for him? Isn’t he the bottom of the heap?


My knees buckle. I’m wrestled to the ground. The screws. They’re folding my arms like they’re shirtsleeves. Pain shoots from wrist to elbow. Burning electricity. I want to wipe the tears from my eyes. The snot from my nose. Can’t.


“You’re breaking my fucking arms!”


Laughter.


The eightball rolls across the floor. One of the big lads stops it with his foot. As he bends to retrieve the black orb, he stares me in the face. Makes kissy lips at me. Then he plonks the ball on the table and goes back to his game. I’m hauled to my feet and the commotion fades. Some of the inmates make a point of grinning in my face.


Then the hotter than hot, sour breath blasts in my ear again. Same voice from breakfast; “Stupid, fucking, tout. Couldn’t even fuck up wee Ronnie no-mates.”


“Please,” I say. “Don’t hurt me.”


I try to turn and get a look at the screw with the hot, sour breath. I can’t quite see him.


“It’d be a kindness to kill you, mate,” he says. “The animals in here are going to have a field day with you. I can only hope my cousin is looking down, laughing his balls off.”


Six years, I got. And the promise of death would be a mercy.