INSTALMENT NO. 5

Date of writing : Sunday 29/12/13 

There’s a certain art to working around someone in a confined space.  Many years ago, I had a part-time job in a busy city-centre pub, often working on a Friday or Saturday night.  These were actually my favourite shifts, because despite the sometimes manic pace, I could drop into a ‘zone’ where I was working smoothly and efficiently, serving drinks, giving change, keeping track of who was next in line for service … I could run on autopilot to a certain degree.  A part of this was the elaborate dance I had to perform with my fellow bar staff.  Once someone had worked there for a while, they would get to know how to pass the other staff gracefully at relative speed, anticipating their next moves and making an effort to avoid being where others were going to be next.  An end-of-month Friday with a novice in training had the potential to be a trying time.  Some never mastered it, and if they didn’t choose to leave of their own accord, then after a while management would find a reason to ‘let them go’.

Now, you can’t get much more confined than a prison cell.  I’ve spent quite a bit of time on narrowboats, and at least in that situation you have the choice to bugger off to the pub in the evening – plus, you will almost certainly have chosen your bunk mate with some care.  However I do not have that luxury here.  The observance of personal space, and consideration for the movements of others is, it seems, something I’ve been taking for granted;  sometimes, it’s only when certain things are absent that one notices they were there at all.  Ahmed wouldn’t have lasted long behind the bar, and I’m mildly surprised he’s lasted this long behind bars.  I guess management can’t simply fire you here – more’s the pity. I can see how he ended up on this wing though …

When I was on the top bunk in my previous wings, I largely kept myself to it, and the patch of floor between the foot of the bunks and the door.  My associate had his bunk and the area adjacent to it up to the wall with the desk and the TV.  Of course, these territory zones could not be rigidly enforced, but they were defaults by unspoken agreement.  If one of us needed to pass through the area ‘belonging’ to the other – for example to access the kettle or speak at the door, then we would do it politely, skirting round the other while he, for his part, did his best to keep out of the way until the natural order was restored.  Ahmed, on the other hand, has a habit of jumping down from his bunk in his loose-fitting tracksuit bottoms in such a way that they slip down and I am presented with his bare buttocks – level with my face, and mere inches away.

Every morning I repeat a set of paragraphs that are intended to remind me of how I hope to live that day mindfully, with patience and acceptance, trying to improve myself and help others along the way.  I know, I know – it’s a lot to ask, and I seldom manage to achieve all that I daily profess.  I’m also very aware of my recent soliloquy on acceptance and not complaining.  But when I say each morning that I will ‘criticise not one bit, not find fault with anything, and not try to improve or regulate anybody except myself’, it can sometimes be quite a struggle.  I’m managing not to show my discontent or mention it to Ahmed – I don’t believe it would help in any case.  So I write here of my complaints, on the understanding that it is simply in order to (a) remind myself of their insignificance and keep me in good humour about them, and (b) hopefully to provide you with a little amusement.

Until recently I thought that there were few who could match me in terms of potential for flatulence;  it turns out that even if this is true, I may have met an equal.  Ahmed farts noisily and unapologetically – almost conversationally in fact.  He did explain that he has some stomach trouble, but there are ways of maintaining certain discretion.  He also snores like someone dragging a chair across a kitchen floor, and when awake has the startling habit of sudden short bursts of whistling which sound like a cross between an elderly songbird and a malfunctioning R2 unit.  I’ve already noted his lack of awareness of personal space, and generally standing a bit too close – this extends to staring directly at me from a distance of about three feet and apparently imagining that I haven’t noticed.  Last night he asked if we could have the TV on for the whole night, playing National Prison Radio (NPR) with its associated bright blue screen.  We compromised on it going off at midnight, for which I should probably be thankful.

Amongst all these small complaints (for as I say, I must remember they are indeed small) he’s actually an apparently well-meaning and friendly man.  He seems naïve, and sometimes I really can’t fathom his thought processes – i.e. the inexplicable times he laughs at the television – but I really couldn’t call him objectionable.  I’m, sure there are things about me that he finds irritating too, and neither of us has much choice about being here together.  I’m certainly learning a lot about patience and tolerance at the moment.  I suppose, in that sense, this ‘correctional facility’ (as the Americans seem to call prisons) is already doing some work to improve me – not that anybody has actively tried yet.

Well, having got that off my chest, I’ll take a moment to tell you a little about my day.  I went again to chapel, and it was quite different this time – we’re getting quite the ‘cereal variety pack’ of denominations.  This week half a dozen or so West Indians kindly came along to play the piano, clap, and sing in gospel harmony to us.  They were quite good, and certainly put a lot of feeling into it.  I mostly didn’t recognise the numbers, other than ‘Shine Jesus Shine’, but you can probably imagine the rest.  The, erm, ‘preacher’, was a little rambling and seemed to have a couple of vocal tics which caused him to sprinkle ‘Amen’ (said in the American ‘A-Men’ style) and ‘In the name of Jesus’ at apparently arbitrary points – even in the middle of Bible verses.  I have to confess that this über-evangelical style doesn’t do a lot for me, but I still appreciate that they came voluntarily to see us and sing for us.

Yesterday I met another brother from my county – grew up just a few stops down the line, in fact.  He seems very level, and I’ve enjoyed talking to him.  Today, I encountered him outside my cell just next to an unoccupied pool table, and he asked if I’d like a game.  Until now I’d been avoiding playing pool due to the mass of testosterone that appeared to hover around the tables (that and my relatively low skill level).  But, as with much on this wing, things seem a little different here.  I got into a chilled-out series of games with him and whoever happened by the table offering to play the winner.  I managed to give a few fairly respectable games, which surprised me. I’ve always thought I had a sweet spot of about two pints for pool-playing, but apparently if the environment is relaxed enough I can manage without the beer.

Also today a friendly officer (I think she might even be the Senior Officer) took it upon herself to try to get my shoelaces back.  Although she didn’t manage it, she did get me a different pair – well, really, it was one longish bootlace cut in half – but I can now walk around (or even run) without fear of losing a shoe.   This afternoon’s walk around the yard was all the more pleasant for that.  Best of all, it seems the regime here is near enough true to the one shown on the wall.  We were unlocked at about 8.45 this morning and spent only perhaps an hour and a half locked up after lunch, then were out until perhaps 6pm.  This is an improvement, and it feels a lot more humane.  I could casually browse the library trolley at relative leisure, and now I have two more books to chew through.

Date of writing : Monday 30/12/13 – around 17.30

Having obtained an interim shoelace solution yesterday, today I had a reply to my ‘General Application’ which I filed on the 17th.  The reply states that ‘there is no mention of glasses on your Prop. Card’.  Well, no, I don’t suppose there is, as I’ve never had any.  I had to double-check I’d not written it wrongly myself, but no, there it is on the same sheet: ‘I’d be grateful to have my shoelaces back’.  It takes quite some skill to misread that as ‘glasses’.  I’ll write another application in block capitals and see what happens (probably mid-January, going by the timing of the last one).   But … I’ve just been to get another form and it seems that they’ve run out … …

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