33- Strawberry Jelly
It was dark. At exactly ten, a loud clunk and the lights went out. The aeons of time had witnessed the exact same routine. Every night ghosts of past occupants infused the atmosphere in the same contemplation of their sins. A brisk wind and a cloud is swept away, opening a sky hole allowing a shaft of moonlight to penetrate the gloom and like a searchlight illuminating its prey. The steel sprung, top bunk is speckled in a fluorescent glow. High up the wall, nearly touching the tall ceiling, the small window is large enough to emit sufficient light to exaggerate the pitifully bleak and monotonous existence of the occupant. Laying on the covers in regulation white, greying boxers and string vest. Right hand behind his head. Sorrowful eyes tight shut. A slight tear in the corner. Left hand nervously rubbing a black stubbled chin and a shaved with a blunt blade nick. Trying to suppress the sounds.
He came from a family of undertakers. Dour people. But as an exuberant person had abandoned the black, sombre attire, the trademark of footsteps followed through the generations. There had been a misty, tranquil fog that morning. The car, a racy sports model, hit the ice patch. The black ice patch. On the bend before the school. Control was lost and the consequence of too fast, still intoxicated and a family devastated was a deepening depression and despair trapped within grey painted walls encompassing nine square metres.
The music had started. The prison music. A universal representation of men tightly packed within a system of tragedy, dominance and brutality. Inspired by darkness the cacophony was relentless. A subtle amalgam of muffled shouting, mumbling, coughing, metallic knocking, clanking footfalls on metal walkways being traversed by nocturnal watchers, high pitched screaming from a not forgotten misdemeanour demanding retribution. Unintentionally summoning the depression inflicted upon the less able, enhancing their desperation. Lifting his arms he swung his sock covered feet and thin frame over the edge and slipped to the cold concrete floor. The ruffled bed sheet followed his passage part way. He turned and absent-mindlessly tucked it back ready for his return. Water flowed from the stainless steel tap turned by its grip by a shaking, pale skinned hand. Splashed his face to attempt to suppress his mood. The persistent mood, relentless as the darkness endures.
The wooden chair, stained and soiled by serge uniform trousers of countless inmates. Polished to a dark patina of ground in grime. He sat. Pushed the open book back from the table’s edge. A tale of happiness and mirth that lifted his spirits. His one solace. The prison library. Slumped with head in hands. Then fists grinding into eye sockets. Leaving a red, beaten up appearance perfectly complementing strained features. The music subsiding but still deafening to one such as him. His nightly display of guilt, shaking him. Tightening his muscles. Admonishing himself with a wretched loathing. He could see the bodies. Two young girls. And wanted to die. Again. He had died in this way every night for three years with a debilitating effect. All he wanted to do was fulfil the sentence that he thought he should have had. He thought, ”when will this end. I want this to end.”
“Russell Martin, you will go to prison for at least eight years.” That was the proclamation. Instantly distressed, almost collapsing in the dock. Then he had thought, “it’s not enough. I deserve more. I should not be keeping my life.” And he was hauled away.
It was the noise that was killing him. The smallest of sounds drumming to his core. Irritating every nerve ending. He stood and padded with short shuffling steps, like a chain gang convict, the few feet to the window. Too high to see out. Except up. Into the sky where he looked, seeking salvation from one he did not believe in. A silvery glow adding a beauty to the clouds as they raced past. Almost poetic. Outstretched arms, his hands pressing back the wall, stifling suffocation with no effect.
Already open, the small stand alone white painted cupboard that contained all his possessions. A cardboard shoe box of treasure. A bar of carbolic soap, a bar of milk chocolate and his favourite strawberry jelly cubes that his daughter had brought him on visiting day. Her ignorance and sheltered life unaware of their uselessness. But he treasured them. A representation that someone cared. The glass in his hand was clouded, stained by over hard water that tasted metallic and had an unnatural warmth he found hard to swallow.
The click outside the door. Mark. He knew him from his early life. Mark offered some sympathy that was refused but he still came to say goodnight when on duty. Russell moved to the door with his condemned man shuffle. A sudden spot of light as the spy-hole was uncovered and a double tap. Asking a question. Russell double tapped to confirm he was alright, then turned to the bed a bright shaft stabbing his back until the cover was restored.
Back in his position his right hand behind his head clenching and unclenching. His torment increasing. The cold sweats starting. Staring at the ceiling. Bathed in moonlight. The grey paint peeling forming a dappled pattern of assorted shadow. The music had been abating but then a sudden escalation of shouted abuse. He knew the reason. Molly and his wife George had fallen out after Molly was courted by Happy Jack. The commotion at landing two, cell twenty one, as the screws tore into George with baton and boot. Molly cut from ear to chin. It will be unbearable tonight. Things were downgraded in this place. The trivial had real meaning. And carried real danger.
Alice was there in front of his eyes. On the chalky cliff top with a stiff breeze ruffling her casually styled blond hair. Long cotton, white skirt pressed sensually against her lithe figure. Agitated sea crashing below sending spray like the crescendo of a symphony to slowly die with withdrawing water only to be repeated with renewed energy. Laughing, smiling, endless happiness. She had told him to curb his drinking. But he had not listened. He was Russ, the life and soul. Had immunity from life’s tragedies. Until the frost and cold one January morning. Then the smiling stopped and she walked away. Every visiting day his expectations rise to be dashed with a progressive realisation. Lucy came, now and then and gave him news. Neil. How could she go with a Neil? With that thought he slept, waking in a dust filled shaft of sunlight, feeling grim and dreading the jumbled din of morning release.
The clutch of keys clinked and rattled hanging from a thick black belt. Mark checking on him. Making sure he had survived the night. Later, his arms spread on his table, his day’s work done, book open and page 149 making him smile. At that moment anyone ignorant of his plight would see a model prisoner, with no worries, working out his time.
Wiley was there on his shoulder. Wheezing. An asthmatic with a wheeze cannot be quiet.
"Got something for you Russ. If you want it that is” Snidely said by a slimy creature with that subtle toothy grin exposing yellowing, decaying teeth and bad breath.
Not a big man, Wiley, but big hands and long fingers. Quick, darting, snatching fingers. Dirt encrusted nails. And a lingering smell. A dark soiled collar and filthy neck skin. A born thief and liar. An mp3 player with headphones attached appeared under the distressed book cover, ”can’t let eyes see.”
“Does it work?”
Wiley nodded his tangled, unwashed mop. Whispered so the world could not hear, head turned looking out the door for prying eyes, “fully charged but no charger. Don’t ask where I got it. Won’t tell.” But Russ did not care. It cost him the contents of his treasure box, plus the chocolate bar but not the jelly. He threw in the soap, “do us all a favour and use that.” he said.
He read some more, though found no more humour. Despondently he sat, adding to the chair’s character for two hours of mind drifting tedium. A worn toothbrush with flattened, stained bristles and cheap abrasive paste worked between his once well cared for teeth loosening the remains of indistinguishable and tasteless food. No soap but shower day tomorrow and he’ll steal some more from someone careless. There was always someone careless. Even where care was essential. Already stripped when the clunk came he retreated to his bunk as the music resumed.
He retrieved the mp3 from the poor hiding place beneath a badly stuffed, rock hard pillow. Packed with classical music and happy pop and swing from the golden age. Flicked through with surprisingly dexterous fingers. Checking the contents. Then built a playlist. An eclectic mix. The prison melody was in full swing but ignored by his concentration. Expensive Bose headphones with comfortable padded earpieces and his sound theatre was transformed. He entered a world of peace and tranquility. A place where his mind could be cleared, briefly filtered of all those troublesome thoughts that dominated him. And he slept the sleep of contentment secretly thanking one he so despised for this almost magical gift.
White glazed wall tiles, white matt floor tiles, stainless steel shower heads pouring hot water and an atmosphere of steam and damp. An impersonal place. And a place where unresolved issues are resolved. Today it is quiet. No inmates, no wardens. Kept away by threat and bribe. Steam filled and translucent. He waits at the entrance. Assessing but knowing. Four distinct shapes close together within the mist. Three tall, muscular and threatening. One shorter and standing slightly forward. In a cubicle a fifth with his foot on the neck of a body.
The smaller shape steps forward, “come in Russell. We have been expecting you.” It said with a firm, menacing voice.
The shape becomes clear as Russ moves in. But he already knows who it is. Authority in this wing is held by one person only. Only one person has the power to bend all to his will. Blind eyes are turned in return for keeping the peace.
“Mr Connaught.” says Russ with the respect the name demands.
The features of the man are clear at this distance. A strong face, close cropped hair and eyes that pierce. Wild, cold and ruthless.
“There’s a good boy. We know you have it. My possession. We know who nicked it.” Flicking a thumb at the bloody, prostrate figure writhing under a nail shod boot. “Been looking for him. He’d got lost. Found him in the shower. Of all places. Fancy that. That stinking creature in the shower. With a bar of soap. Now where did he get that? We all know he would not have bought it. Don’t we Russell?”
“I gave it to him. Mr Connaught. To get cleaned up.”
“We know he took it. How do we know? Because his presence pollutes everywhere he goes. There’s no mistake. A thief should not be a stinking thief if he wants to sneak thieve. Should he Russell?”
“No Mr Connaught.”
“A few slaps and he gave you up. And I want it back.”
“You can have it Mr Connaught. No harm done. Is there?”
“That’s where you are wrong Russell. Amends have to be made. Payment has to be taken. Reputations have to be upheld. An example. To deter. You understand don’t you Russell? You understand how things operate. Don’t you?”
And that was the thing. He did understand. He had understood when he got it. The mp3. He had understood the consequences. He knew Wiley would be caught. He knew what would happen. And he knew he would not survive. He was not strong enough. But it was his salvation. His punishment. His sentence would be complete. And he would be content. At last. The smaller man stepped aside. Three dark shapes descended upon him at the same time as a whimpering scream came from the cubicle.
The jingling of keys on a thick black belt the passing warden stopped outside the shower block. Foot shuffling. Contemplating. Looking through the steam and mist into the opaque world. Lingered a few moments then with a shrug of resolution moved on. He held a shoe box that had once held treasure. Open, sitting in its lid. He looked at the block of strawberry jelly knowing its significance and thought of his friend. He saw his happy, laughing face. The Russell he remembered. The verdict of the enquiry would be as expected. An unfortunate accident. He was not happy with that but he also knew his friend would never have found peace. His consolation was that he had tried. He had understood and he had tried.
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