Remember Me As I Was.
Oatmeal for breakfast on a Monday, served lukewarm or cold. I chewed slowly, the plastic tray on his lap as I sat on my bunk. Grey food, slop, you had to factor that being inside a prison within a prison. It had to go through a lot of gates. Wasn’t intentional. Blocking out the window for so called security reasons. No natural light. That was intentional. Keeping us locked in a seven-foot by six-foot cell twenty-three out of twenty-four hours. Only being let out to exercise alone indoors for an hour a day—although some weeks they cancelled at short notice—so we didn’t get to feast on prison walls or razor wire, or get to mix with other prisoners. That was intentional. The outside world, the mountains and sea is in black-and-white as we sometimes get allowed to watch a 12-inch telly and the History Channel, but no The World at War, I used to love that as a kid. Some people called me a Nazi, which was just stupid. That wasn’t what it was about. We’re allowed to request books, but we don’t get them until they’re screened for inappropriate content and there was no one to screen them. Guards don’t read—that’s not intentional.
It was a version of hell dreamt up by bureaucrats, safe as a sandpit for high-profile prisoners. Our faces might appear in newspapers to mark anniversaries or in documentaries, but we don’t get to see them or each other. Family visits banned for administrative or security reasons. I was lucky, having no family or loved ones to visit, so they couldn’t use that against me.
I followed with interest the prisoner through the wall of my cell. A jihadi terrorist, involved in 7/7, who often went off on one and had to be restrained, and had his lawyer plead his confinement amounted to ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. Torture, in other words. But I didn’t hold out much hope. Shakespeare understood people want guarantees, even if it’s about the afterlife; they also want their pound of flesh. I understood that better than most and prisons stink of rotting flesh. After a while it worms its way under your skin and you taste it, even in your dreams
Prisoners love their bibles or Korans. The thin paper is great for rolling tobacco. And it can be wadded together, but I’ll not tell you the reason for that. I took to memorising the Revised Standard Version of The Holy Bible, it has a certain ring to it, lacking in other versions. And the Collins’ clear type face was easier on my old eyes. After breakfast I’d recite, with my eyes closed, where I’d left off from the night before.
I was going to say sleep, but nobody much sleeps in prison—apart from the guards—there was too much screaming, shouting, and clanging noises. If something can be done silently, bells and buzzers were added. Sometimes you doze in your bunk and think hours have past, but then find out it was only ten minutes. That was on a good day. Memorising text keeps the brain sharp. And it clears the mind, like splashing clear water in your eyes. You look up and the day was night. Even dinner tasted better than shit on a plastic spoon followed by sand for dessert.
Some scripture is harder to swallow than others. Take Ezekiel 48:33:
‘These shall be the exits of the city: on the north side which is to be five hundred cubits by measure of three gates, the gate of Reuben, the gate of Judas and the gate of Levi, the gates of the city being named after the tribes of Israel. On the east side which is to be four thousand cubits, three gates the gates of Joseph, the gate of Benjamin and the gate of Dan. On the west side which is to be four thousand five hundred cubits by measure, three gates…’
Pattern repetition made memorising large parts of it easier, but more monotonous…and I was never great with numbers. I chanted away, correcting myself when I got it wrong and starting again. As a punishment I had to backtrack one verse before I was allowed to advance two. My failures irked me, but as the scripture says, there lies humility. I had stored up half a banana as a treat when I finished, but before I got to the end, another voice interrupted me.
‘You’ve got it all wrong,’ it said.
I looked around my cell and listened. The Bible was still in my lap and stretched my back a little to alleviate lower back pain. In such a small space the instinct it always to crouch, an unconscious act that knits the muscle in your back and ties them into spasms. Makes your stomach grumble. I listened to the prison sounds of knocking and the far off laughter of a prison guard. The voice interrupting my internal dialogue had been male, but not my own. I glanced down at the passage in Ezekiel and noted that I had indeed made an error, a small one. I laughed. No banana for me.
But I licked my lips, but found it hard to settle back into a rhythm. Closed my eyes, ‘Thank you for your help,’ I said inwardly to the voice.
‘You’re welcome,’ it said. ‘But the cubits are all wrong and if such a city had been built, which, of course, it never was, it would have turned out all wonky. And it was to be called not “the Lord it there”, but the Lord is here. We take such things very seriously here.’
The Bible fell onto the floor and I scrambled up from bed. I did no more work that day. When the ginger-haired guard brought my dinner and pushed it through the hatch, I was sure he looked at me funny, as if he knew something.
‘Cunt,’ I shouted at him. And flung the tray back towards him without touching the food. ‘You’re trying to poison me.’
‘Listen Zeke,’ he whispered. ‘Your choice. Bread and water. I don’t give two flying fucks. Me and lots of other folk would quite happily watch you die a painful death…The sooner the better.’
I recognised the tone of voice, it was the same voice. I picked up the Bible, hugged it shut to my lap, squeezed shut my eyes and scrunched up my face. ‘You still there?’
I chewed on my lips to wet my tongue, even though I wasn’t speaking. ‘What do you want?’
‘I don’t. I swear to God, I don’t.
‘Thou shalt not take thy Lord thy God’s name in vain.’ It sounded like the ginger-haired prison guard and laughed like him too.
I got up and stared at the cell door. Paced a little: backwards and forwards and backwards and forwards. They’d be watching me onscreen. Noting this new pattern of behaviour and it would be automatically logged.
I was sweating when I sat down on the bunk. Years of practice in centring myself, cancelling out prison noise and the monkey mind. Calming my ragged breathing, but couldn’t. The hairs on the back of my neck stood as I closed my eyes and stared into nothingness. ‘Am I going mad?’
That laugh again, and it was coming from my mouth.