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I'm in bed at the moment, covered in breadcrumbs and skimpy grey British Army blankets, my knees tucked up under my chin and a blue plastic mug of blue plastic tea in my hand. The eejit in the next bed is doing his staunch Republican bit. "McSwiney taught us how to die," he is saying to his locker, and him only two weeks without a visit. The visits get canceled regularly here. I think we are only entitled to one visit a month; the other three are "privileges" to be withheld as the Prison Governor decrees. After the first visitless week or so men take to their beds. It's not a pretty sight. Your Man has retired for the night already, pink pajamas neatly creased and rosary beads in hand. And it's only seven o'clock.
During such phases the huts here are like some surrealistic limbo; made of corrugated tin sheets, they are unpainted Nissen huts. Leaky, drafty, cold, they are locked up at nine o'clock every night and unlocked at 7:30 every morning. We're inside them of course: us and our lines of bunk beds, lockers, our electric boiler, a kettle, a row of tables, a television set and a radio.
Somebody has just decided to brush the floor. Big floors in here, and thirty men lying, sitting, squatting, sprawled and splattered all over it. Nowadays there's thirty to a hut; it used to be worse. There are four or five huts to a cage, depending on the size of the cage; two-and-a-half huts or three-and-a-half for living in; an empty hut for a canteen of sorts, and the other half-hut for "recreation," with a washroom and a "study" hut thrown in. Wired off with a couple ofwatch-towers planted around, and that's us.
Oh, and the drying hut. I can't forget that. The drying hut is where we hang our wet clothes. When we don't hang them on the wire. The drying hut is also the only place in here where you can be on your own. If nobody else is in it, that is.
All the gates open inwards. They probably do the same outside but you notice it more in herethat's called doing "bird." And everyone walks in an anti-clockwise direction. I don't know why. Internees do it, Loyalists do it as well. "Will you do a lap?" or "Fancy a boul?" or "Ar mhaith leat dul ag siul?" and away you go around and around. And always against the clock. Maybe some instinct is at work. That's the funny thing about this place: a simple thing becomes a matter of life and death. I suppose it has always been like that. If you walk the other way you get the back ripped out of you.
Jail is unnatural. Even the men in this hut are wired up. Imagine thirty men of different ages, the oldest sixty-three, the youngest eighteen, all locked up together for years and years. I don't know how they stay in such good form. A well-informed comrade told me years ago that if he was building a sty for his pigs he could only keep twenty-odd pigs in a hut like this.
"Apart from the size," said he, "there isn't enough insulation and the walls must be breeze block or brick." Nowadays when he feels outraged at something or other he is heard to mutter: "This place isn't fit for pigs," but sure that's another story.
The floor is clean now and some of the boys are waiting for the late news. Sometimes we miss it and then there's a shouting match. Marooned as we are on the desert island of Long Kesh, television has become our electronic window on the world. The news programs are of paramount importance. So is Top of the Pops; it has a consistently large audience while the audience for the news programs go up and down depending on what's happening outside. News comes from other sources as well. From visits, from rumors. You would be surprised at the rumors which go the rounds here. Sceal is the word used to describe the widest possible generalized interpretation of the word "news." It includes real news as well as gossip, scandal, loose talk, rumor, speculation and prediction.
Much of it is manufactured by my friends Egbert, Cedric and Your Man. They do it almost by instinct now and the thing about it is that by the time it does the rounds here its source gets totally lost in the telling and retelling, the digesting and dissecting. What starts as an apparently innocent, throwaway remark from any of the aforementioned comrades soon becomes attributed to a BBC newsflash, an absolutely impeccable source on the IRA Army Council or a senior civil servant in the British Northern Ireland Office. And of course everyone adds their own wee bit; in fact, that's our main pastime. We manufacture it most of the time in our cage and sometimes shout it across to other cages, or we talk at the wire when we are out of the cage for visits, football or other excursions. We also throw "pigeons" to each other. A pigeon is a well-tied snout (tobacco) tin containing a sceal note and a few pebbles for weight. We hurl our pigeons from cage to cage and thus have a line of communication which the screws can't penetrate. If you're a good thrower, that is.
The prison grub is awful. It comes to us from the "kitchens" in big containers on a lorry. At the cage gates the containers are transferred to a trolley; then whichever POWs are "on the grub" trundle the trolley across the yard and load the containers onto a "hot-plate" in the empty hut which poses as a canteen. If the food is particularly gruesome it will be refused by the Camp or the Cage Staff. If not, anyone who is "on the grub" serves it to whoever has the courage, constitution, or Oliver Twist appetite to digest it.
In the internment cages we rarely ate the prison grub, but then we were permitted to receive a fairly wide selection of cooked food which was sent in from outside by our families or friends. Here in the sentenced end the food parcels are more restricted and less frequent and so, alas, we have to eat the prison grub. At least some of the time. Apart from Seanna, that is, who eats it all the time. Sometimes we find more appropriate uses for certain alleged items of nutrition, and the cakes, which remain hard even with dollops of custard on them, came in handy on one occasion. During a British Army riot here we managed to keep them out of the cage for long enough by loosing volleys of gateaux at their ill-prepared ranks.
We usually dine together in food clicksit took me years to establish that click is spelt clique. Some of our more ideologically correct comrades call them co-ops, and for a while the word commune was favored by a few free spirits, but click is actually a more accurate description. A food click shares out its members' food parcels, usually on a rota basis, and divides the duties of cooking, plastic dish washing, tea making and so on in a similar fashion. Periodically someone drops out or is ejected from a food click. Occasionally others, for less quarrelsome reasons, go soloknown here as creating a "thirty-two county independent click"but mostly collective eating predominates.
Cooking usually means reheating on the hot-plate, or on one of the ceiling heaters from the shower hut, removed and suitably adapted for the purpose, or even on a wee fire lit outside in a corner of the cage.
We drink loads of tea here. The Cage Eleven intelligentsia drink coffee. The water for both beverages is boiled in a communal boiler, which each hut has. Being "on the boiler" means being Gunga Dinn the water carrier for a day. When I was in solitary once, I was able to make tea from a second-hand tea bag with water heated by placing a water-filled brown paper bag on the pipes. It took eighteen hours and was only tepid but it was still tea. I think. Without milk. Or sugar.
In between praising the food and manufacturing sceal, receiving sceal, discussing sceal and passing on sceal, we read a wee bit, back-stab each other a wee bit, talk a great deal and engage in a little sedition, which is mainly a matter of getting to understand the political situation which has us in here in Long Kesh. This process is occasionally revealing, sometimes amusing and always, next to sceal, the most time-consuming activity of most sane POWs. Other, less sane POWs make handicrafts but that's a habit I've avoided so I can't really comment on it. A lapsed handicrafter told me once of his belief that the making of harps, Celtic crosses, purses, handbags and even soft toys was addictive. Painting hankies with colored marker pens was, he believed, less seriousmerely a phase all POWs go through.
We also go through phases of depressionthe big D. On the outside marriages break up, parents die, children get sick; all normal worries intruding into our impotent abnormality. Some comrades have nervous breakdowns. Some do heavy whack. Comrades also die in here through lack of medical facilities and in one case a British Army bullet, and people are dying outside all the time as the war goes on. It all has its effects in this bastard of a place. That's one thing POWs have in common: we all hate Long Kesh. But we try not to let it get us down.
Some POWs sing or play musical instruments which is one of the reasons why others try to escape. Would-be escapees cause the prison administration a great deal of anxiety, but the prison administration doesn't like being anxious. So to relieve the prison regime's anxiety we are forced to endure British military raids when, at an unearthly hour in the morning and entirely without notice, a British Colonel Blimp makes a commando-style raid into our huts and orders us to "put your hands on your blankets, look at the ceiling, then when told to do so you will get dressed and take your knife, fork and spoon to the canteen." Just to show he's serious he is accompanied by a few regiments of combat troops. Why we're told to bring our knives, forks and spoons I'll never know. We never get fed. Sometimes they tell us we can take our "treasures" with us; I've never been able to understand that either. Sometimes they spreadeagle us on the wire and sometimes they beat us. They always make a mess of the place.
As you can see from all this, the prison administration takes its anxiety very seriously, which is more than can be said for most of the rest of us. They tried to give us prison numbers, taking away our names and calling us prisoner 747611 or prisoner 726932. But we refused to use our numbers and now the screws have given up using them too. After all, we're only here because of bad luck, stupidity, miscarriages of justice, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And, of course, because our respective parents conceived us in or near that part of north-east Ireland which is under British occupation, at a time when we were assured of reaching imprisonable age just when some citizens of this state decided they had had enough of it. And once we were here in Long Kesh, like Topsy we just growed and growed.
Sometimes we give ourselves a hard time. As Your Man says in his wounded way, "Are the men behind the wire behind the men behind the wire?" But mostly we save up our resentments for the prison administration. We mess up head counts, make hurling sticks out of prison timber, protest regularly, organize our own structures, read books they don't understand, ignore their instructions, try to escape, succeed in escaping. Generally we just do our own thing. We enjoy political status in Cage Eleven. We would do all of the above anyway even if we didn't have political status. In fact we would probably do worse, but for now we co-exist in our strange little barbed-wire world, enduring a unique experience under and because of the unique political apartheid which exists in this little British colony in the top right-hand corner of Ireland.
Your Man says we'll all be out by April 24 next year. I don't know about you but I wouldn't believe a word of it. How would he know anyway? He's a bit of a hallion. Maybe his brother told him. His brother's best friend is married into a family which has a son who is engaged to a woman whose father works for a man who is very thick with some old chap who works as a civil servant at the British Home Office in London. And he would know, wouldn't he?
April 24. Let me see. That's a Monday. Funny now, that being a Monday. Your Man wouldn't be quick enough to figure out that for himself. You see, Monday's a good release day. Now if it had been a Sunday, well then you could say for certain Your Man was lying. But it's not so easy now, is it? I wonder if Egbert or Cedric know anything about this. Egbert knows Your Man's brother pretty well. I think I'll go and suss him out.
"Ah. Egbert. Just the man I'm looking for. Did you hear about the letter from the British Home Office? About releases in April? You did? What do you mean there's a copy of it on the wall in the Governor's office? Egbert, c'mon. Give us a bit of sceal."
Only one hour, four minutes and one thousand six hundred and twenty-four days to go.
At least I'm not in for stealing," Your Man said. "Not this time anyway," I replied, as I left him steeping his feet in the jawbox. Things aren't going too well between us this last wee while. Him and his early rises!
There are two main groups in here. I'm not talking about left-wingers or right-wingers, about hawks or doves, nor about this issue or that issue. The truth of the matter is simple and straightforward. There's Us, and there's the Early Risers. That mightn't seem much of an issue to anyone who hasn't been here but, nevertheless, it is a rather complex problem. To begin with, why would anyone in a place like Long Kesh want to get up at half past seven in the morning?
Why indeed? Nobody knows! Nobody, that is, except the Early Risers themselves. And when you ask one of them they grin and yawn and say,
"Ach, sure it's a good morning," or
"I always used to get up early;" or even
"I do a bit of training."
It does seem a bit far-fetched, doesn't it? And the way they do it! All carefully arranged and coordinated the night before. Jimmy wakes Jackie who shakes Alfie who rouses Cecil who kicks Alphonsus and away they go, creeping half-naked into the dawn. Hut by hut, cage by cage they muster. In the washrooms, by the tea-boilers and under the showers. When everyone else is being dragged out of bed by ambitious or power-crazy Hut OCs the Early Risers are sitting, smiling their superior smiles and trying to look innocent, just as if they hadn't been doing anything at all.
"Good morning...Maidin mhaith... Did you finally make it?" Grins, smiles and smirks cloak the back-stab: "Morning John" (You waster); "Dia dhuit Seamus" (A amadan bhocht).
At one stage the Cage OC feared a coup d'etat was being hatched in the wee small hours and so the IO was put to work. I should explain that the IO is the Intelligence Officer. The OC is the Officer-in-Charge. Very formal and militaristic, but that's the way prison camp is. We elect an OC and he selects a staff and that includes an adjutant, an IO, a quartermaster and various other dignitaries. I digress. Back to the Early Risers. As I was saying, the IO was put to work to check them out. Nothing transpired, however, as the IO (known ever since as "Mattress-Back") kept watch from a horizontal position, and that, as all well-bred subversives know, is no way to do intelligence workunless you're Mata Hari, of course, which needless to say Mattress-Back isn't, worse luck.
Anyway, not only do the Early Risers get up early, they also go to bed early. And Us? Well, we like to watch TV or listen to records, or sing and shout and generally tire ourselves out before getting into the cart. Which is only sensible; like, it's no good going to bed unless you're sleepyanyone can see the logic in that. Anyone, that is, except the Early Risers! They think we do it deliberately to keep them awake. Regardless of all their complaints, though, they still manage to get up early the next morning, which just goes to prove my point: whatever it is they're up to must be very important indeed. I'm back to where I startedback to Your Man. Now he's gone and joined the Early Risers!
I only found out about it the other week. It was one of those lovely mornings for lying on but the screw had great difficulty in unlocking the door and he woke everyone in the process. They lock us up at night, you know; you would think it was deliberate. But anyway, having locked us up at night they have then to unlock us in the morningat half past seven. When anyone with a bit of sense is well covered up and cozy. The morning I'm telling you about, the rattle of the keys woke me, and just as I was slipping back into a semi-coma I thought I saw Your Man creeping up the hut. "Ha Ha," I thought to myself, "Nature calls early..."
However, on being kicked out of bed myself, at a much more respectable hour, I saw that Your Man was still up and that he was behaving exactly like the others.
"I've started learning Irish," he explained. "And I study in the morning when it's quiet."
He must think I'm a complete eejit. Learning Irish, he says. He doesn't know "Cad e' mar ata tu" from "Bord na Mona." Not that I've anything against the Irish; I'm learning it myself. Only it's very hard in here. It's difficult to find the time to do everything.
Maybe I should go to bed early tonight after all. What a waste it is to be spending these good mornings in bed. Not that Your Man has anything to do with me thinking of getting up early. Not on your life! He definitely must have a move on but sure if he wants to keep it to himself, well, I have more important things to worry about than the behavior of a latchico like him. I've got a visit, and if I'm up early I'll be able to do a wee bit of training and have a good shower before the rest of the lads get up. I only hope I can get to sleep earlysome of the blirts here would act the eejit all night. And I must get someone to wake me. Maybe I'll be able to do an extra wee bit of Irish as well. And maybe Your Man will tell me what he's working on!
I hobbled to the doctor's during the week. Luckily I had been able to time the spraining of my ankle to coincide with the weekday hours in which the prison regime allocates a doctor for the thousand or so prisoners here. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself because if you are going to sprain your ankle (or anything else for that matter) in Long Kesh there's nothing like getting the time right. Timing is everything. If you make a mess of that you could die waiting for the doctor to come. On the other hand, if you're perfectly healthy it's pretty good craic going to see the doctor here. For one thing, it gets you out of the cage.
First stop is the cage gate. It opens into a wee wire tunnel. That's where the screws rub you down. Out of the tunnel (the regime calls it an air-lock) then out, via the other cage gate. A brisk hobble takes us to the wicker gate in the wall which now surrounds our cages. All movement of prisoners is recorded at each gate. Passage through all gates is accompanied by your screw shouting "one on" or "one off" depending on whether you're leaving or arriving. The screw on gate duty then makes his mark in a little ledger, denoting your departure from or arrival into the area controlled by his gate. All very elementary. Three gates within yards of each other with screws at each one. Big screws, wee screws, strong screws, weak screws. Screws of all shapes and sizes: smart, clean, regimental screws; washed-out, bogging, scruffy screws. Security screws, visit screws, sports screws, friendly screws and nasty screws. Screws performing all kinds of functions, every role programed to suit their capabilities. Every role programed to subvert our attitudes.
Beyond the wall now and on to the road which runs alongside the visiting boxes. Lots of muck about the place. Building workers escorted by screws, sentry-boxes inhabited by screws; screws in vans, screws at gates, screws to-ing and fro-ingall programed, all functioning well. When I feel fit enough to go to the doctor's I have my own special screw to keep me company. He is a remarkable piece of humankinda right pockel. I pause, he pauses; I hobble fast, he hobbles fast; I stop, he stops. I smirk at him, he smiles shyly back; I glare at him, he looks away; I address him as "my good man," he grins stupidly; I ignore him, he observes me sleekitly. I go to the doctor's, he goes to the doctor's.
I think he really hates me. Deep inside his blue uniform, I reckon he really, really harbors a burning hatred for me. Like, I'm not sure of that, of course, but the majority of screws here behave, most of the time, as if they hate the prisoners.
Just me and him then. Almost at the doctor's. Brit watch-towers within range, more building workers, the whole place being assembled on grip-work and overtime. Out of the ashes of Long Kesh arose the Maze Prison. Only one more box and one more gate to go. Only one more screw to pass: this one is programed to open and close gates and to write down names. A breakthrough in time and motion. Usually they train two screws for complicated performances like that. One to open gates, one to do the names. This looks like an experiment, something like the one-man buses when they came out at first. Inside another cage now, my screw following closely. I'm glad we both made it. I tell him this and ask him, in my most regal tone, to open the door. He scurries forward, fumbles, gets embarrassed, succeeds. I ignore him and we step inside, me into a partitioned "waiting room," he into a corner.
No one else about. I examine the graffiti: "P.J. Can we ask for a retrial?" "Wee Arthur, 15 years! Wait for me Sadie I love you," "6 into 32 won't go," "This place is hereby renamed Lourdesif you get cured here it'll be a miracle," "Bump," "Jim O'Toole, 12 years," "Mickey"...a whole wall of them. An interesting but unprintable one on the window sill. Another one about that much-maligned old Italian Republican, Red Socks himself. The place is pigging. I sit down. My screw looks away again. A young lad comes in: a skinhead haircut, tattoos across his knuckles. He's a YPa young prisoner. There is a swelling below his left eye, a bruise on his forehead. He sits down, ill at ease; I grin at him, ignoring the screws, and offer him a cigarette. He takes two drags while the screw has his back turned and then hands it back to me. The poor kid is frightened to death. He still hasn't spoken a word.
"Do you want some snout?" I ask. I give him another drag and wait for his answer, feeling protective, disdainful of the screws.
Suddenly he leans across to me: "Can you get a complaint made about a screw?"
"Aye, I'll get our OC to see the Governor."
"It's about____. He beat me up. He beats all of us up." His words rush at me in a frenzied whisper. He hesitates, then, "____is a bastard. He beats us up all the time. He's the worst screw of the lot."
The screws at the door must know what he's telling me. They must know what's happening. They pretend they don't. They ignore us. The YP gets cockier and pockets the cigarettes I give him. He is about fifteen or sixteen, pale-faced bar the bruising. I ask him for his name. He gives me his surname. He looks uncomfortable again as I leave. I hear the screws say something. I go into the doctor's.
More screwsthree of them in white coats. Clean screws called medics. We examine my leg together. I wince, they wince; I explain how it happened, they nod their heads sympathetically. The doctor prescribes something or other. The screw with the pen calls me mister. I wonder how they will deal with the YP. I consider telling the doctor about him, just to get rid of my frustrations, just to get shouting a bit. Then I look at them all and I feel lost for a second. They know there is something wrong: they're programed for that eventuality. They move away and I go out. Past the YP. He pretends he doesn't see me. Past the screws, who look sheepish. My own personal screw tags along behind me and we hobble back. Back past the gates, across the road. When my screw slips in the muck I mutter "idiot" at him.
I notice heavy cable beside the wicker gate: they must be going to make it automatic. I pass more screws. We head for the cage, but I hobble past our cage towards the next one. My screw follows uncomplainingly. I talk with our Camp OC at the wire, giving him a rundown on the YP's complaint. Afterwards my screw and I part company at our cage gate. I ignore him. He says goodbye. He uses my first name. I come through the gates, in by the tunnel. Through the next gate and across the yard. He heads off towards the gate in the wall.
Inside the hut I drink my tea. Outside the huts the screws continue their patrols. Outside our cages they hunch against the wind. At their gates they jangle keys. In sentry boxes they huddle against the cold. Don't ask me why they do it. I'm not programed like they are so I couldn't give you an answer. It took the British Army, the RUC, a British judge and a few Special Branch men to get me in here. Screws serve their sentences voluntarily.
Well, they do so for a lucrative wage plus overtime. I don't really hate them. I'm not so much against anything or anybody, it's just that I'm for a lot of things. None of them includes screws.
But then nobody here likes screws. No one likes thinking of Paddy Teer dead in the prison "hospital." Teddy Campbell dying his last few years here to be released to a premature grave. Jim Moyna breathing his last agonizing breath as he fought to keep living against all the wire, all the screws and all the gates between his cage and the doctor's. Frankie Dodds dying at the gate of the cagejust outside the wire tunnel.
My personal screw whined when I called him an idiot. He is programed to do that. If he had me on my own in solitary I couldn't say that or if I did he wouldn't whinenot while he had assistance. That's the way screws are programed.
And now here in Long Kesh the screws are being programed to take political status off us. But they know and we know it won't be an easy job. The H-Blocks will be their Waterloo. The ones like____who beat up YPs don't understand. But then they never do. That's why they're screws. They're not all like that, of course; some of them are decent enough; but most of them aren't.
They are out there now, outside this hut, hunched against the wind, huddled against the cold. They are out there, outside this window watching in, jangling their keys. They are out there now, they and the British Army, keeping us in here. For the time being anyway.
Conversations with God Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.
an uncommon dialogue book 2
By Neale Donald Walsch
Copyright © 1997 Neale Donald Walsch. All rights reserved.