Date of writing : 18/03/2014
Something I’m beginning to understand is that if anything raises an eyebrow of query in here, then somebody is probably up to something. When I obtained a fairly nice chess board & men for a packet of digestive biscuits, I confess to the deal appearing a little too good to be true. Especially when I found out later that it had been sold further up the chain for ½ oz of tobacco. I couldn’t work out where the devaluation had occurred; it defied the usual rules of prisonomics. But I had a chess board, and everything seemed fine. So I brushed aside my doubts.
For a week or so, I had the board out on the desk. DF played a few games with Marley, and a couple of times some people borrowed it too. Each time, it came back to me, without trouble. In this period I didn’t actually play a game myself – I hadn’t played since I was a teenager, and various other things kept me distracted from giving it a go. “Time is one thing I do have,” I thought, “I’ll get round to it.” Then one evening, not long before bang-up, Calvin – one of the wheeler-dealers of the wing – asked if he could borrow it to play with his pad mate that evening, promising a swift return in the morning. He’d not caused me trouble before, so I obliged.
In the morning I went off to my Business Studies class (beats sewing in the workshop, similar pay) without bumping into Calvin, but thought nothing of it. I tracked him down at lunchtime. I could tell there was going to be a ‘story’ by the look on his face, so I braced myself with a sigh. The tale was that Ken, who had that morning been shipped of to a Cat. C, had had it in his cell (somehow, despite Calvin’s claimed reason for borrowing), and had taken it with him when he went. Hmm . . . big wavy red flags appearing here. Something was clearly going on that I wasn’t party to: none of this added up.
However, my investment was minimal. I decided I couldn’t be bothered to work out who was scamming whom, and I thought I’d cut my losses and walk away. Noting, of course, that Calvin should not be given credit in future. So there it stood, for a few days.
Then one day I went to visit Marley on the 3’s , as sometimes I’m apt, and noted Calvin’s pad mate – let’s call him Hobbes, for the sake of amusement – playing chess. “Now, that’s a fine chess set” thought I, “I used to have one just like that …”. Yes. I did. Upon pointing this out to Hobbes, he showed his finest poker face – consisting in his case of flushing bright red – and tried to act all casual about it, like he was as surprised as me. Apparently he’d borrowed it from Bristol Barry (a muscular chap with the brains of a barnacle and the accent of a pirate). All very well, be that, says I, but I’ll have it back when you’re finished, thank you very much – and you can explain to Bristol Barry whatever scam it is you’ve got going on. So duly I re-obtained the chess set, and returned it to my cell, tucking it away under my bed and swearing never to lend it out again.
Pleased to have it back, I thought little more of it until later that evening. A little after 5pm I was on the phone – as often I am at that time of day – and I noticed a slight commotion nearby, involving Calvin, Hobbes, and a few others. Slightly irritated by the noise, I tried to block it with a finger in my ear, and continued my conversation. But then a chap I didn’t know other than by sight – Badger – who’d been a part of the commotion – came and started trying to talk to me while I was on the phone. I told him to go away, with all the politeness such an interruption demanded: i.e. none. Phone calls in prison are not something to be messed with as they’re expensive, limited to 15 minutes at a time, and have an enforced gap of 10 minutes between the end of one call and the start of another.
Much irritated, I continued my call. This was until finally Bristol Barry himself came to annoy me. Using the threat of his not insignificant physical presence to invade my personal space, I felt he deserved a similar level of politeness in being told to sod off and wait until I’d finished my phone call. He apparently begged to differ about the urgency of his own communication; and put his finger on the phone cradle to end my call. Now, there are some things that you just don’t do: this is one of them. Like Mr Bridger’s toilet time being invaded by Michael Caine in The Italian Job, it simply isn’t cricket. Resigned to the inevitable confrontation, I contained my rage and wore my best nonplussed Noel Coward face.
Predictably, the barnacle-brained pirate began to demand the chess set, with threats of knuckle to face contact. Since being inside, I’ve learnt that such approaches can often be diffused by failing to react in either of the usual expected ways. I’m no bodybuilder, and I’m certainly no fighter. Despite being not far shy of 6 foot tall, few would call my physical presence ‘imposing’. As such, I’m probably generally put into the box of one who’ll cower or retreat at the first indication that someone has a mind to injure me. The alternative would be to escalate with return threats in kind – a strategy that seldom fails to come to blows.
So, when Neanderthal tactics are countered with relaxed body-language, unthreatening eye contact, and an apparently genuine desire to understand the grievance of the aggressor, he tends to find himself somewhat wrong-footed. I tried to establish what it was that had led him to believe the chess board was his (he’d also bought it, apparently), and I explained how I’d come to believe it was mine, and to whom I had recently lent it. I listened patiently to his incoherent (and mildly west-country amusing) ramble, giving him the occasional sympathetic minimal encourager, doing my best to maintain open and understanding body language.
During this discussion I noticed Badger go past clutching the chess set in question, having nicked it from my cell. By this time I was resigned to relinquishing ownership anyway, so wasn’t terribly troubled. Any possibility of violence having subsided, all that remained was for Bristol Barry to find some way of removing himself from the discussion without losing face or feeling like he was retreating. I can’t remember exactly what ‘point’ he attempted to make while walking away (so that I had no opportunity to counter it), but it seemed to be enough to make him feel better.
I later found out that Hobbes had been punched by Calvin for letting me get hold of the set. I still don’t know the exact nature of the scam I’d been caught up in, and I probably don’t want to know. It seemed to involve at least six people though. Frankly, for the trouble it’s caused, and for the sake of 59p, I feel no desire to see the darn thing again. The list of people on the wing to whom I’m willing to lend or give credit is a small and sadly diminishing one. In any case, after this débacle, I’ve also resolved to trade in nothing but consumables in future. Perhaps I’ll buy myself a chess set from Argos. Or fashion one from stones using a geological hammer. There are others I can borrow in the meantime.
But honestly, sometimes I feel like I’m surrounded by criminals.