by Andrew Lee-Hart
It isnt the prisoners that frighten me so much as their guards. The prisoners might have committed the most horrendous of crimes, but most of them enjoy my visits and seem sad to see me go, whereas the guards enjoy exercising their pathetic power; being rude and unhelpful and taking pleasure in keeping me waiting in cold or over-heated offices. And then there is always the danger that they might realise that something is amiss and have me dragged away, for questioning or worse.
In fact, I was only stopped once; that was at a high category prison in the Scottish Highlands. I was not at my best after a sleepless night at a shoddy hotel in the middle of nowhere, which was far, far too quiet, and I had got lost on my way to the prison and so was late, which I always hate. The guard at the gate had let me in without trouble, but then he was one of us, but once I was in the prison the guards became suspicious and refused to let me go any further.
Who are you? the governor asked, whilst I sat on a hard plastic chair flanked by two of his minions.
I am from the government; it is nothing to worry about; just a few questions for the prisoners.
The department for prisoner morale? I have not heard of that.
The governor was an old man, who had worked his way up through the prison service and was now counting the days until his retirement. He had grandchildren, who he loved very much, and was on medication for depression; I had had no reason to think he would cause any trouble.
Normally I would have been able to talk my way out of this; I knew that confidence was the key, not to expect to be challenged, but perhaps on this occasion they could sense my weariness or my fear that for once I had failed to repress.
You have my I.D. I pointed out, trying to sound as bored and in control as possible, just ring the number and you will get through to my boss back in London.
He sniffed dismissively; what did he have to do with London?
I have done; it was just a voice on the phone. I am waiting to hear from Mrs Sutherland in Glasgow, perhaps she can shed some light on this.
I remember sitting in his office which smelt of coffee although I had not been offered any and sweat, trying to stay calm, but realising that this could be it, the end of my life as I knew it. There was a photograph of a loch above Mr Mackays head, and I examined it, trying to stay in countenance. And then, after what seemed like hours, the telephone rang and the governor, after letting it ring a half a dozen times, answered it, looking at me as he listened; giving nothing away.
I think you need to leave he told me, after he had put the phone down, and gave my escort a nod. As I reached the door, he called to me angrily.
I dont know who the hell you are, or who you work for but stay out of my prison.
I tried to say something but was quelled by a look and carried on walking. The guard at the gate, looked worried.
What went wrong? he whispered.
I am not sure. I will speak to someone.
And I left, back to collect my belongings and then to England and relative safety.
There was no immediate comeuppance; just a short email from the usual address asking for my version of what had happened, but that was it. However I was sure the whole incident was down in a notebook somewhere; I knew that nothing was ever forgotten, and that one day, when I least expected it, someone would bring it up again and questions would be asked, or it would be used against me.
On Friday I was at Luton Prison; I had been there before and had had an easy drive from home that morning. I felt confident about the day ahead, although dealing with prisoners one could never be sure; one wrong word or look the potential for violence always being there, but there was always a guard on the other side of the door if one got in trouble. And at least I was near home; no cheap hotel (money is tight and our expenses are always checked) and I felt as if I was on home ground, with accents similar to mine and a shared culture and background, more so than they probably realise.
There are shit questions Ryan said to me, looking frustrated, what do you need to know about my girlfriend for? And my crimes? I have been through this with my probation officer time after time. And how do you know all this stuff?
This is not for your probation officer. Do you not want to get out earlier?
Well answer the questions, we are nearly done. Now foreign languages?
What about them?
Do you speak any?
I barely speak English, let alone Francaise or Italiano, why would I?
When, still smiling, he had been led out by his guard I made notes; he was not promising but there might be a use for him somewhere, anyway my job was just to pass on information, whether they were used or not I had no idea. In fact none of them today had seemed to have much potential; even the drug dealer who had lived in Holland and had allegedly run a complex smuggling ring, had surprisingly few talents for someone so wicked and feared.
At lunchtime I sat in the staffroom eating my sandwiches and drinking cheap tea; whilst at the opposite end of the room sat Amy, who was part of the organisation but as usual she ignored me. Even when we were briefly left alone for a moment she concentrated on her magazine and her coke.
Daddys home, I heard Marie call as I walked into our semi just outside Guildford.
How was your day? she asked me, as I kissed her lightly on the lips before being engulfed by Tom and Esther, and for a moment I felt that we were a real family with no secrets other than affairs and alcoholism. As I put my bag down and put the kettle on, they babbled about their day; how they had gone to the park and fed the ducks, and what they had had for lunch. Esther was three and Tom four, considering they were not kin and I had only known them two years I felt very caring towards these two children; the first I had ever had charge of, it was almost as if I loved them.
Dinner was already ready, and we sat down to fish and chips with beans. Marie was not a great or adventurous cook but then she hadnt been chosen for such skills and food has never been important to me. Marie and I got on very well though and had had an easy relationship from the beginning, unlike Martha, for instance, who I had lived with previously, on a council estate in Sheffield. Rude, talkative, and so very noisy, I had complained about her regularly; asking to be moved anywhere, so long as it was away from her. But my missives were ignored for two whole years, until one day I arrived back home to find her packing with tears in her eyes, which did not stop my feelings of joy at the thought of never seeing her again.
Once the children were in bed Marie and I sat at opposite ends of the dining room table and worked on our laptops. We were supposed to do this in separate rooms, but we had soon stopped doing that and whilst we did not talk about our tasks, it was pleasant to watch her hard at work; her face preoccupied and a little sad, whilst as if independent of her, her long fingers tapped quickly on the keyboard, and then occasionally our eyes met and she would give me a quick smile before returning to her work.
I wrote up my meetings with the prisoners and then checked my emails; the only thing of note was a meeting next Monday in Dagenham. When I closed and locked my laptop I noticed that she had finished her work too.
Shall we? she asked.
And I nodded. One of the rules for those living together was that we were supposed to have sex at least twice a week. Presumably it was in case the neighbours got suspicious, or perhaps to keep us relaxed and intimate. Even Martha and I had fucked frequently, perhaps more often than I had done with anyone else, including Marie.
We undressed in front of each other and kissed and then were in each others arms and later she cried out something, but I was not sure what. Was she thinking of me? Or was there somebody else, from her past, who she missed? For me there was nobody else, just Marie, and as she drifted off to sleep, I kissed her forehead, which was cool and smooth.
I love you I murmured into her hair, please save me.
Have you ever travelled?
Nah mate, never left South London hardly, apart from as a kid, we went to Colchester to visit my dad, he was in the army, but he refused to see us, so we went back home.
Would you like to?
Nah. Why are you offering? (chuckles).
I listen to these recordings and wonder what the purpose of them is. All these voices; London, Liverpool, Newcastle, Afghan, Polish; all wanting to be better, to conquer what is inside them; the violence, the vulnerability. And what do we do with them? I really dont know, but I know that it is neither good nor kind.
Each staff meeting is held at a different hotel; at least this one was near to my house, so I did not have travel far, otherwise it was the usual; anonymous and functional. In the old days we could stay the night and there would be all you could eat breakfasts, tasty lunches and a three-course meal in the evening; we worked hard but we were looked after, and the hotel would be of a good class with large rooms and soft beds. Now it is Travelodge with sandwiches and biscuits brought in at lunchtime and at night we have to fend for ourselves or just go straight home, and nobody stays overnight. We are like any business, we have to save money, but I cannot help feeling that it is a bit mean, considering all that we do and the risks that we run.
Every month some old faces have disappeared without explanation and new ones appear in their place, looking even more nervous than the rest of us. Today there are a few of the old faithful, and I suppose that I must count myself amongst that number; Copperfield, our leader, Weller, Joe, Wardle and a few others. Of course the names we use at work are not genuine, mine is Jasper, my real name I rarely think about, although perhaps one day I will tell Marie what it is.
The meetings are for the most part dull; endless reports read out by Copperfield in somnolent tones, but then someone is asked to go out to speak to someone behind the scenes, and rarely do they come back, and then we sit there, pretending to be listening to Copperfield, but in fact wondering what is happening, and after awhile, in the distance we hear a car drive off and we all avoid looking at each other, but we know it means an empty house and agents being moved or disposed of. So far I have never been called out, but I know that one day I might be, anyone could be, even Copperfield.
We sat in a circle drinking instant coffee whilst Copperfield shuffled his notes, we were due to start in two minutes and the room had been full for some time. Punctuality is vital and if you are late you are not allowed to come in. I had been over an hour early and even so was one of the last to arrive. We made small talk; football, weather and Doctor Who; we have never been told what we can and cannot talk about, but we tend to be careful, and stick to the blandest of subjects.
Weller engaged me in conversation, he has been coming to these meetings for longer than I have; although he is always dishevelled looking and rarely speaks, I get the impression he is untouchable; never criticised and never far away from Copperfield. We talked about Spurs.
Kane and Song; what a partnership he said.
I watched them against Villa; magnificent; that third goal .
So how are you getting on? he asked me in slightly hushed tones.
I looked at him in surprise; this was way beyond what we normally talked about. The other twenty or so men were talking quietly amongst themselves, but who knew who was listening.
Oh okay. I ventured.
Good. Good. Dont you ever fancy a change?
Wherever the organisation will take me.
Then Copperfield cleared his throat and the meeting started, whilst he started to outline what was going to happen that day, I wondered what Weller had meant. Was I going to be moved? I did not want to leave Marie, not now, and the children. Where would they go? Back to wherever they came from or to another couple? Throughout the meeting I felt Copperfield looking at me even when he was reading out yet another report, about overtime payments. What did they have planned for me?
He was waiting for me at Bangor prison the next morning, friendly and well-spoken; I did not trust him for a moment.
Twist he said.
I know. I am just here to watch you at work; see how you are doing. Nothing to be scared of.
Is there anything wrong?
He looked at me as if I should not ask such questions, which probably I shouldnt. And without a word he headed to the main gate, looking confident; a man with authority, who knew what he was doing.
Throughout the day, as promised, he sat watching me, not interfering as I interviewed the men; one at a time. We spent the whole day there and had our lunch in the staffroom. Whilst I sat quietly eating my sandwiches, Twist talked to the other guards, or rather asked them questions and listened intently to their answers, something that I was supposed to do but never did.
Be careful I thought, he is making notes, he is not missing a word, not a pause, not even a half-formed thought.
But they chatted away to him; happy to have someone who appeared to be sympathetic to their stories of an incompetent governor, poor pay and prisoners who should be executed.
See you tomorrow he said at the end of the day, as he shook my hand, and drove off, presumably to write a report about me, and after a few moments I too headed home.
Are you okay? asked Marie, you look tired.
Yes, just a busy day.
And she hugged me tight and kissed me on the cheek. Then I played with the children; wondering who they really were and where had they come from. And wondering if this happy time was due to come to an end.
That night we made love passionately, and afterwards as we lay in each others arms she talked to me, her lips brushing lightly against my ear.
Do you ever think of leaving?
I often wondered if they bugged our houses, but we were so close and talking so quietly that surely even the most sophisticated of equipment could not pick up what we were saying.
All the time. All the time.
We lay there, our bodies barely touching as I tried to process what she had said. Did she really feel the same as me? I hoped so but you have to be so careful.
We could do it. She murmured, others have, at least two couples, I know of for sure escaped and began a new life. I have money, hidden faraway. We could leave, run away. Take the children.
Are you serious?
She kissed me again, and as she did so, I heard the word yes; as if she were crying out to me from her very soul.
At first I had enjoyed working for the organisation; the secrecy, the sense of importance and it had been my life for so long. But then there was the loneliness, the deaths and the disappearances, and worst of all the uncertainty. I had carried my unhappiness and fear, all around with me for years now, always hidden from view, only let out when whoever I was living with was asleep in bed beside me, or when I was driving slowly home, dazzled by the car lights; wishing that I could go somewhere else, somewhere safe and normal.
It is not prisons every day; on Friday I was ordered to house a house in St. Albans; to call on a vicar. Two younger men I had never met before, were waiting for me at a service station outside Welwyn, and we had driven then driven to St. Albans in a small van. We waited outside, watching the vicarage.
He will be on his own now said Gamp after we watched Reverend Adams wife and two children leave the house, calling goodbye as they did so. It was a quiet cul de sac in a wealthy area, overlooked by the church.
Postman Pat will be here in a minute, and then we can go in.
His companion Bagnet smiled and pulled his fingers one at a time, until they clicked, and I shuddered slightly.
You know what you have to do? asked Gamp.
Yes of course; just engage him in conversation and then you two will do the rest.
He gave me a look, as if he did not entirely trust me, and we continued to watch the house, but I had done this sort of thing before; in fact when I first started it was the shenanigans that I did most of the time; questioning, beatings and even the occasional murder. I never knew the reasons, was just told to take someone or find out a particular piece of information. I had been a glorified thug really, at least I had moved on from that, well a little bit.
A minute or two later than usual the postman, in shorts and a heavy bag, sauntered down the road with a pile of letters for the vicarage. He was soon out of sight, and I got out of the van. I was dressed smartly and was using my best public-school voice and manners, which is probably why I had been chosen for this mission.
Good morning, Rev. Adams?
He was a young man, surely too young for the care of so many souls.
Yes, he looked at me suspiciously.
I have come from the cathedral; about the Bishops visit next month.
He looked at me blankly and then Gamp and Bagnet were pushing the vicar back into the house and I swiftly shut the door behind us. Nobody appeared to have noticed.
If anyone rings or knocks on the door, get rid of them. Gamp told me as they pushed the exceedingly worried looking vicar into a back room.
I sat in the Reverend Adams study, in his very comfortable chair, reading a book about the book of Daniel, whilst occasionally I would hear a muffled scream or a thump from the depths of the house, but fortunately the walls were thick, and I was able to concentrate, just occasionally glancing at the street through the window, to make sure nobody was taking an interest in the house. I could imagine it would be a good place to bring up Tom and Esther, with no traffic and trees everywhere, just a pity the neighbours werent more observant.
I thought about Marie, what I had not told her was that I too had money; a bank robbery I was involved with many years ago, when Wade and I decided to keep half of our haul; presumably he still had his somewhere, if he was still around. And there had been other opportunities over the years to add to it. I had never spoken about it to anyone, but it was there just in case, and now was perhaps the time.
There was a splatter of red on Gamps left cheek, whilst Bagnet looked flush and over exerted.
I nodded and put the book down.
You may as well keep that, Reverend Adams wont be needing it. I doubt he will be reading much in the future; or anything else pleasurable.
I put it in my pocket, and we drove off.
Youre home early Marie said.
Just a half-day today I told her.
The children were running about the garden whilst Marie was talking earnestly to an older woman.
This is Barnacle.
I nodded and went up to my study to write my report and when I returned Barnacle had gone and so I played with the children all afternoon in the sun. The garden smelling of pollen and heat.
I have money I whispered into her ear as she pushed down on me, I have been saving it for years.
Can you get hold of it? she asked after a moment.
I will have to travel, it is in Hereford in a storage centre.
She gasped above me and then kissed me more passionately than I had ever known her to.
Later, under the duvet, so that our conversation would not be heard, we talked.
We could go up early on Thursday morning. I have no prison visits that day; I am supposed to do admin.
Okay she murmured. We will meet you somewhere in Hereford and drive off. By the time they have noticed .
But where shall we go?
Italy she told me, I have a friend in Naples, he was a friend of my father. We used to visit when I was a child. It is where my money is.
For a moment I could picture fountains and scooters and wondered if that could be our life. I desperately hoped so.
She fell asleep in my arms, and I stroked her back and her bottom, that was so soft and warm. Could this be it I wondered? An escape at last? It all seemed so unlikely. The organisation was large and getting larger; sure it was struggling due to finances and it made mistakes; the wrong victim, the wrong questions, but it was all encompassing, and all-powerful, could we really escape. Like Marie I had heard the faintest of rumours of those who had left, but I deep down I didnt believe any of them.
Twist was waiting for me outside Birkenhead jail.
They dont need us until eleven he told me; we have an hour.
Twist drove us to the River Mersey and we walked along the promenade, enjoying the views of the Liverpool waterfront.
All built on slaves of course.
We were there even then; just making sure things did not get out of hand, always in control.
It was August, but there was a cold wind and I shivered.
We have always been here, behind the scenes. Like a theatre director or the playwright.
Okay I answered, not knowing what else to say.
How are you getting on with Marie? he asked after a moment.
Well. We have a good, professional relationship.
Er, no should there be?
People get close; love blossoms, it is inevitable. You live with someone; share a bed, you are either going to hate them or love them.
There is nothing of that.
Well I didnt mean with you. Although we do wonder about you and Martha.
But she was awful; I asked to be moved several times.
Uhm he murmured as if he did not believe me.
We continued to walk along the promenade, a ferry set off from the terminal and we watched it head over the water towards Liverpool, we could just hear a voice over the waves giving some kind of commentary to the tourists.
Oh well, we had better go back, they will be expecting us, Twist said, and walked back to his car, whilst I pondered what he had said, wondering what it was with all these strange, prying conversations.
As I interviewed prisoners I wondered about Twist and what he was there for. And then, as usual I became interested in the lives of the people who I was interviewing and forgot about anything else, apart from the young men with their strong Scouse accents and their tales of sadness and neglect.
We will meet you at Hereford at eleven she told me later as we lay together, naked and hot.
Are you sure?
Completely. And she kissed me. Whenever I think about what happened, I remember that kiss; as naked as any kiss could be, as if she was giving herself to me as completely as anyone could.
I have tried to pack a few things.
Be careful, you dont want to raise suspicions. We will have money, we can start anew.
I know she said, and kissed me again and held me tight, like a young child clinging to the only safe thing she knew.
I staggered out of bed at five; I had hardly slept, and Marie too had lain beside me occasionally chatting, her hand gripping mine. But when I left our bed she seemed to be asleep. I looked at her; she looked anxious but beautiful, I bent over her to kiss her but changed my mind as I did not want to wake her, and for some reason I thought that it might be unlucky.
I had a Satnav but dare not use it in case they had access to it. Perhaps they had tracked my car too but what else could I do? I knew the route having checked it on my AA Road Map yesterday evening, and I drove swiftly through the early morning sunshine, which dazzled me so that I had to wear sunglasses.
And then for a moment I was lost, I remembered clearly where the storage facility was, in the middle of an out-of-town industrial estate, but it had expanded since I last left my money there. I circled round, looking at the new businesses that had settled, desperately hoping that it had not disappeared or moved. They had no genuine contact details for me too risky so they could not have let me know if they had closed down, and my money been destroyed or stolen.
But then there it was, hidden behind a garage and tool shop and with a sigh of relief I drove in. I handed my identification, the passport that I kept with me at all times, and I was given a key and inside was my Slazenger sports bag which I remembered from so long ago. To my relief the money was still there, ready to be used at last; thousands of pounds all in notes. I quickly heaved the bag into my car and drove off. I continually looked behind me to see if I was being followed, but there was nobody behind me, well that I could see.
It was thirty minutes earlier than Marie and I had planned to meet when I parked in a side street near the cathedral and there was no sign of her car. I walked around the outside of the cathedral, just observing but there was nothing obviously suspicious, just a few people hurrying past, barely looking at the Medieval building at the heart of their city.
Inside there was somebody playing something on the organ, the music sounded Baroque although I did not recognise it. The building smelt of polish and damp and I shivered slightly as I sat down near the front admiring the stained glass and trying to calm my fears and my excitement. I wondered should I pray but when I thought of God, all I saw was an organisation that nobody could escape from; all seeing and cruel.
I looked up at the organ loft and there seemed to be something familiar about the organist; at first I thought it funny and I amused myself with trying to wonder who it was that they looked like, but then the music stopped and the organist turned and looked straight at me, and I realised who it was.
Zelenka. Have you heard of him? Twist asked me, with his usual smile
Oh of course, you were a musician long ago.
I would like to have been.
Oh well, he said sitting down next to me, none of us live the lives we expect to.
I doubt it.
We sat there in silence for a moment, and then the main door of the cathedral opened briefly, and I heard shouting from outside, and a voice that sounded very like Maries. I started to get up, but Twist grabbed hold of my arm.
Stay here. It is too late and there is nothing that you can do. Dont forget there is still the Scotland affair which we never cleared up.
I pushed him hard, and he was clearly not expecting it because he fell backwards without much resistance, and I was able to push past him and run down the nave and out of the cathedral without being stopped.
Marie was being held by two men by a van, one was Gamp and the other Drood, who I had worked with many years ago. Another man was pointing a gun at them from behind Maries car.
Let her go, he shouted, but they stood there, and I realised that Gamp was pointing a gun at Maries head. Suddenly Marie turned to look at me, and I have never seen so much anguish on somebodys face, and then the others too realised that I was there.
Where are the children? I cried.
She said nothing, just continued to stare at me, and I wondered later if she thought that I had betrayed her, a thought I still find unbearable.
And then Twist was beside me, shouting something and Drood fired twice, and the man with the gun fell silently, hitting the car, before sliding onto the concrete, whilst Marie screamed briefly before she was dragged into the van.
Twist was by my side.
I am sorry he told me, truly I am. They would have shot you and taken your money.
Drood and Gamp?
No Marie and Dennis.
No, she was going with me.
He shook his head, that was not their plan; they wanted your money and to escape to Italy, you were not in their scenario, only your money, they must have found out about it somehow, we knew of course, and Marie was quite high up in the organisation. He shrugged. They lived together, ooh about six years ago, we realised that they were still in touch, but we were not quite sure what they were planning, until a couple of days ago.
What about the children?
They are okay. And he walked away.
The van had disappeared, and the body was gone, I stood alone in the car park, there were a few people who had heard the noise, but once they realised that the commotion was over they turned away and eventually so did I. I headed back to my car, suddenly remembering my money, and realising that I could still escape. But when I got to my car, my Sports Bag was empty, and I was not surprised.
I was back at my house by dinner time, wondering what I would find; I imagined an empty building and instructions on where to go next. But as I opened the door there was the smell of pancakes and I could hear Mark and Esther shouting happily. I walked into the kitchen and a woman came to meet me, and I realised that it was Martha.
Hi Jasper, she said, long time no see. You are just in time for dinner.
The two children ran at me and hugged me tight, and after they had let me go, we all sat down to dinner, as families do.
That was over a year ago now, and we are settled like any other family. Martha is kinder and less irritating than I remember her, and whilst I wouldnt trust her, I enjoy her company more than last time and she is a better cook than Marie ever was.
The children at first asked about Marie, and I fobbed them off with a story about her having to go away but being happy and missing them, and that one day she would be back. But soon they stopped asking about her; as if they had forgotten her or realised that I was lying to them and that she was not coming back, after all I am sure something similar has happened to them before.
And yet at night I dream of Naples; of Marie and I walking hand in hand through the busy streets, with Tom and Esther running by our side. The sun is shining and we are happy, and I know that wherever Marie is that I love her and that one day I will rescue her and we will be together, and we will be free.
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