Visitors 15. (Part III)
By Mark Burrow
The prison looks like a school that’s gone wrong. It’s trying to act like it’s not a jail but the big door, rolls of barbed wire on the walls an cameras tell you that once you get inside you ain’t getting out unless they say so.
We head round to the visitor centre. Mum tuts when she sees the line. She checks her handbag about eight thousand billion times. No one talks much.
It’s mostly women visiting. Mums an sisters. A few girlfriends. A baby cries really loudly an I know how it feels. There are two lots of visiting times. One for the younger prisoners in Block A an then one for the older ones in Block B. We’re for A group cos Mike’s only 17.
Next, says a man in a uniform.
Me an mum walk up.
Who are you here to see?
Michael Harry Smith, she says.
He checks a register. Your name?
Caroline Smith and this is Jason Smith.
ID an proof of address, says the man.
She reaches into her handbag an passes him what he needs.
The computers are down, so he signs us in on paper an gets mum to sign a form too. He tells us these borin rules an points for us to join another queue for checking in phones, money, fags an prohibited items. That’s when I realise I’m busted.
Mum, I whisper.
Don’t get angry.
Why would I get angry?
Can you take these?
I quickly pass her my fags an lighter.
What the flip, Jay?
I know. Sorry.
Jesus, as if this isn’t stressful enough, she says, putting them in her handbag quick-time.
I didn’t mean to.
I knew I could smell smoke on you. Where’d you get the money for them?
I found them.
Please, she says.
Oh, stroll on, Jay.
We’ll talk about this later. Is there anything else in your pockets?
I give myself a pat an there’s nothing, only an empty packet of Monster Munch.
You sure? she says.
I don’t say anything.
The queue takes ages.
Mum puts her mobile, two packs of fags, lighters, an a half-eaten pack of Murray Mints into a plastic tray. A dog sniffs for drugs an we’re frisked an scanned for knives, guns, ropes, wire cutters, flame throwers an shit an then they allow us through a door an walk along a corridor with no windows to the visitor hall. We come to another queue an have to wait our turn, hearing voices. It’s too hot in the corridor an it smells too. It’s like going to the swimming baths when you’re still in your outside clothes an the heat makes your skin go all sweaty an itchy. A West Indian woman is mouthing off about something to the guard by the main door, kissin her teeth an cursin white men.
You notice how none of the guards smile? says mum.
You’d think they were scared their faces would crack or something.
A woman behind us says, They make you feel like you’re the criminal.
That’s exactly it, says mum.
Did you hear what happened in the week?
It’s why they’re extra on the security. Two of the guards were jumped and one was slashed. When other guards came, they got a real pasting too. It was in B Block, but all the boys have since been stuck in their cells without exercise or activities nearly all day every day. There’s going to be a big investigation apparently.
Didn’t your boy tell you?
I speak to my boy on the phone every other day. He tells me everything that’s going on.
I speak to my boy on the phone too.
I give mum a look. That’s another zinger of a lie she’s told.
Surprised he didn’t mention it to you, says the woman.
Guess he doesn’t want me to worry. He’s thoughtful like that.
My boy knows he can tell me whatever he needs to.
Does he, now?
I can hear mum’s voice gettin aggro. I start to think she is goin to get into a fight an end up bein sent to old offenders. I’m wonderin about how to distract her when the guard tells us to move forward as we’re next up.
Nice talking, the woman says.
Yeah, says mum.
To me, she whispers, Fucking bitch.
The guard looks in the room an then repeats the rules, sayin who we’re allowed to speak to, where we can an can’t go.
Mum does a sigh. Yeah, yeah, I know, she says.
He lets us into the hall an I follow mum. It’s mad how most of the boys an families in here ain’t white.
There he is, says mum, an she starts wavin at Mike an does this squeaky sound which is well fucken embarrassin.
Mike raises his arm for us like he’s answerin a question in class. He wiggles his fingers to let us know he’s seen us, probably hopin mum will shut up.
We get nearer an feelings gurgle up inside of me that I didn’t know I was gunna have about how happy I am to see him.
Mum runs an gives him a hug an kiss.
Hi mum, how you doing? he says, finally standin up, but in this baggy, gangsta way.
We’re on time, she replies.
I never doubted it, he says, grinnin an then he propa sees me an ruffles my hair. The same as dad used to. Alright, Smudge, he says, what’s been happening with you?
I don’t know why but I give him the biggest hug.
He squeezes me tightly.
It’s good to see you too, you little weasel. It really is. Golden.
The room is loud from people talking.
I look at Mike an clock he’s all hench. His shoulders an arms have propa filled out. He’s wearing a plain black t-shirt an tracksuit bottoms. I always think he’s gunna be in a blue uniform or something but it ain’t like that here.
You want a cup of tea? says mum.
There isn’t any and the shop’s closed.
There’s water if you want some.
Mike scratches his neck. Yeah, he says, lookin round the room.
The train was good coming in, says mum.
It’s so expensive.
You should be able to claim it back.
They make it so difficult, though.
I check out the other tables. Some of the boys are scary. I know if I saw them on the estate, I’d ignite my turbo boosters an leg it, although I guess in here there’s nowhere to run.
Anyway, it’s not about money. It’s lovely to see you. How you keeping? asks mum.
He puts his elbows on the table. It is what it is, he says. Taking it a day at a time and all that.
You staying out of trouble?
I’m a good boy.
A woman in the queue says there was a massive fight an you’ve been stuck in your cell.
Who told you that?
One of the mums.
He tuts an says, People and their mouths. A couple of the guards get a thrill from searching cells for stuff that shouldn’t be there. The guards are mostly white and they keep turning over the cells of the same lads, who are black. So, it kicked off and there was some payback.
You didn’t get involved?
Nah, it was mainly in the other block, so some of this is rumours an people exaggerating – and there’s a lot of exaggerating that goes on – but’s there’s a similar thing happening in my block. Some of the guards are racist and it’s all gangs in here. This postcode showing flex against that postcode. Back and forth it goes. Bim, bam, bim. Gangs trying to show who’s the hardest. So, there’s a bit of that as well. I keep out of it where I can.
Where you can?
I keep out of it.
Make sure you do.
I’m angelic these days. All well-behaved an reformed. When I get out of here, I’ll be so perfect you could put me on top of a Christmas tree.
My angel, says mum.
You better believe.
We live in hope.
On that note, guess what?
Me and mum both say, What?
He puts his hands palm down on the table, pauses an then goes, I’m getting out for real.
That’s great, Mike, I shout.
Cheers, Smudge, he says, winkin.
Mum sits upright an her face changes. You what?
Nice to see you’re chuffed about it.
I am chuffed.
You don’t sound it and you definitely don’t look it.
Mike, I am – when are you getting out? It’s the best news, I swear.
Cept I know what Mike is sayin. If anything, it’s like she’s disappointed.
They have to decide. I’m to be assessed again by the social worker, a shrink and all that shite, but they think eight weeks, maybe less. They’re saying there’s too many of us in here and I can’t say I disagree.
Oh, darling, she goes, that’s brilliant.
He doesn’t buy her reaction. Neither do I. Her voice ain’t matching what she’s trying to say. It’s like when music teachers make me play the xylophone. It don’t matter how I strike the wooden keys with mallets, the tune don’t play like it should.
Mike straightens on his plastic chair. They’re similar to school chairs cept the legs are screwed into the floor.
One of the other boys starts shoutin at his visitor. A person goes over, not a guard. Someone who helps to run the visitor centre. The boy is swearin an cursin his girlfriend. The baby she’s holding starts wailing.
Joy everywhere, says Mike.
Mum crosses her legs. I am so happy to hear that, Mike. I’m over the moon. You never should’ve been put here in the first place.
Come off it, mum, I totally should have. What I did was grimness.
Well, I think your sentence was harsh.
No one speaks for a bit an I feel this tension. Mike an mum are bufferin like there’s a maths question, only this is to do with them both thinkin it’s best not to say anthing in case they start rowin. So I say, I can’t wait to have you back, bro.
Mike’s face loosens up. Yeah, it’ll be good to hang out. We can go to a footie game.
In a football chant voice, he goes, Hoops.
Hoops, I say back.
Together, we go, Hoops, Hoops, Hoops.
We start laughin.
People look in our direction.
You two, says mum.
You’ll stay with us, right? I ask.
Well, says Mike, going all serious, that’s the big question, isn’t it?
Mum gives me evils. I realise I’ve gone an said what she didn’t want me to say.
She goes, Of course you’ll stay with us. It’s your home. It’s where you belong.
Where I belong? says Mike, pullin a face at her.
Yes, snaps mum.
It’s not where I belong if one of your loser, thieving boyfriends is staying at your place.
Don’t start that and less of the boyfriends.
I have to give an address, mum. They’ll want to know who I’m staying with. They’ll be speaking to you to make sure it’s all legit.
It’ll be fine.
Well, by the bruise on your cheek, I know you’re seeing someone and they’re definitely another loser.
There ain’t no bruise.
So you walked into another door? You keep doing that.
Your make-up’s not hiding it from me. You think I can’t see someone’s given you a back-hander?
You can’t talk to me like that.
I know you.
You think you know everything, Michael Smith, but the problem is you don’t, which is how you ended up in here.
He nods. Fair comment, he goes. I won’t argue with that.
I wanted to look nice for you, she says. Why’s that a problem?
Mike does a long sigh. He says, There’s nothing bad about it, but don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes, alright? I can see you’ve made an effort, but that’s a bruise and a bruise is a bruise and I know how you got it. And look at Smudge here, why’s he skinnier than ever? There’s nothing of him. He’s a chicken wing. A sprat.
To me, he says, Are you getting food?
Mum butts in, I got him McDonald’s.
I’m talking to Smudge. Are you getting enough food? Do you have a dinner when you get home from school or where-ever?
Mike, she says.
I look at mum an then at my bro.
You sure? Cos it don’t look like you are to me.
See, says mum.
Then I say, This week I am, anyways.
Mike turns his head from me to mum, sayin, This week he is. What did you do, go shopping? Take him to Maccy D’s so he’d forget all the times he’s come home to a plate of sweet FA? Buttering him up before bringing him here to see me.
Oh shut up, says mum. I don’t have to listen to this. What do you know?
I know he can’t eat lager.
He gets food.
No, he doesn’t. Not when you spaff the little money we do have up the wall.
How dare you talk to me like that. I do the best I can, Mike. It’s not easy.
I can see that mum is about to start blubbin. Usually, I feel sorry for her, but I kind of hear what Mike is sayin an it feels like another one of those heavyweight truths that come by every now an then.
Alright, alright, I’ll back off. Maybe I’m wrong, mum, he says an he looks at her an then at me an I let him know with my eyes that he’s totally right in what he’s saying. It’s like we have this secret wifi an there’s this email that it carries between us that no one else knows about, includin mum.
It’s why he’s my bro.
Mum stares off, looking at the windows with grills over them. I’m trying, Mike, I really am.
That’s good, mum. I know you do try. I’m just telling you, I can’t be seen with some of the people you hang around with when I come back. I’ll have to give my mates a swerve too. These lot, he says, noddin towards a guard, will wanna check up on me and if anything dodgy is going on, it is going to be a problem because I don’t want to be back in here. You understand that, right?
She faces him an says, I’ll sort it out.
You’re coming home and that’s that. We’re a family. At the end of the day, it’s all we’ve got.
I know that mum, he says. Where else do you think I want to stay if they’re letting me out?
He reaches out across the table and he squeezes her hand. She puts her other hand over his an squeezes.
I know you do your best, he tells her.
Sheepishly, she says, It doesn’t always amount to much, does it?
He smiles at her.
She says, We’ll get there. I promise we’ll get there.
It’s just taking a while, he says.
You can say that again.
The both do a laugh. I don’t know what’s funny an feel a bit left out. It goes quiet between them an mum asks Mike about what he does during the day. I start to get kind of bored an my stomach seems like it might do its pinchin an I don’t wanna have go to the toilet in a prison. No ways. I look at the people sat at the tables. Some of the boys have these wispy beards that dad called bum fluff. I wonder about what they’re in for. Whether or not any of them committed murders for real. Mostly, I reckon it’s drugs, robbin an thieving. That’s what a lot of the idiots do on the estate. The police ain’t too bothered about what goes on, or that’s how it seems, cos suddenly there’ll be loads of them, swarming the flats, banging on doors, comin to nick the usual faces cos they know who is to blame most of the time.
I don’t wanna be a thief or a robber. I know I say I wanna do murders, but I don’t. I hate it when I have to fight. It’s so fucken sick an nasty when you’re hittin each other, biting an kicking an always knowing there might be a knife that’s gunna be jabbed into your chest an then you’re done like the boy in the park. I remember watching his mum in tears, going into the long black car. There were flowers against the small coffin that said the word, Son. The police found the boy who did it. I heard it was all to do with a pair of trainers. The dead boy had teased the other one about the way the laces had been tied up. I think the boy who did it was only a year or two older than me, which is nuts. When he was arrested by plain clothes cops – so, you know it’s serious cos they’re real police – he kept shoutin how he wasn’t gunna let anybody disrespect him.
Respect, that’s what loads of the fights are about. Code of the samurai shit.
(next section: https://www.abctales.com/story/mark-burrow/visitors-15-part-iv)