He brushed the dirt from his cheek and sat back on his haunches to relieve the strain on the leg muscles. He dimly realised that the right leg would be numb and tingle when he stood up. Remained squatting and directed his attention with furrowed brow at the tiny green shoots flapping in the breeze at the base of the wall. The wall was old, great rectangular stones, spattered with moss. Dirty wall on which uncountable hands, elbows and knees had rubbed through cotton, and the more or less oily backs of as many heads.
What does it feed on? No more than half an inch of soil between those rocks. Why, the gap only about quarter of an inch wide, can’t be more than two or three inches deep. Every rain, some more nutriment must be sluiced down from higher up the wall. He craned his neck painfully to look up, lost balance, put a hand behind to keep him from falling back. Propped on the heel of hand, estimated distance to the top of the wall. Forty feet. About forty feet. Let me think, how would nutrition for a plant get on to this wall?
Wind? Dust storms? Of course; I read – where? Somewhere – dust particles carried for miles on thewind. How plants grow on the islands in the ocean, Pacific. That and bird droppings. Yeah, bird droppings, too. Sit on the wall, at dusk maybe, when we’re locked inside. Then they fly away . . . The droppings are washed down the side … feed little plant. That’s why it grows at bottom, not half way up.
Although last year, was a flower half-way up, north wall in the old yard. Couldn’t reach it; they’d think I was trying to climb out. Ha, wall too smooth, half-way up, slip. Leg’s going to sleep.
He rose slowly hearing the crack of his knees and leaned against the wall on his palms, eyes down. It is going to sleep. It is asleep. Ouch! Wears off slowly, takes its time, sign of old age, never get reconciled they say.
Say many things. Plants need so much water, so much soil, so much, etc., But see the greenness of this plant.
Say that hope makes you live longer and so on, perhaps for plants too. Well, little plant, hope to grow tall as the wall? Ha, not the only one. But they’ll chop you down mate, before you get half way. ‘Prisoners use the bloody thing for ladder.’ But hope, still.Warmth and movement had returned to his leg. Holding on to the wall, lifted up each knee, waiting for the crack, wincing when it came. Now he dusted his hands, one against the other, turned from the wall to survey the exercise yard.
Sun sinking, men standing, some sitting on the long bench partly obscured by a jutting corner of the cellblock. Could hear murmur of talk from around the corner: occasional shouts, occasional laughter.
Sun now well below the top of the wall: he judged it to be sitting on the horizon for a last look round before sinking. All the yard in shadow. Like standing inside a yellow cardboard box in which scented stationery had arrived: the yard was scented with stale urine from the adjoining main toilet block. To be fair, only when wind in the west.
What wind from the sun
Blows messenger here
Hymn, dawn, free?
He started the walk across concrete toward the cell block corner. Glint from over the wall told the corner of his eye that the sun still a little above the horizon. He looked up, took in the clean, sheer blue of the sky, darkening slightly over the buildings on his right, but still pale and hopeful to his left where the sun was. Nursery wall blue and deep dark ocean, roll on. His steps carried him to the corner, and around. There the bench of men by B block wall, placidly waiting to be put behind it. He prepared.
‘Hey, here’s nature boy.’
‘G’day, old matey, how’re the worms and that?’ He smiled back, slowing to join them on the bench. Chose a spot and occupied it with his broad behind. Always to smile, always to smile.
‘I think he’s studyin’ the soil so he can dig’is way out.’
‘Maybe ‘e’s trainin’ the worm to dig ‘is wayout for ‘im!’
Ha, ha, etc.
Act be natural (smile).
‘The only thing the worms’ll ever dig for ‘imis ‘is grave.’
No laughter, just bloody old morose O’Connor,who should know better as everybody knew, and who always said the wrong thing as everybody knew, and whose life was in hock too, at Her Majesty’s and so on.
Ah, that we have but one life to give. Best not to answer.
The conversation broke into groups. His knuckles became white, gripping the edge of the bench. He sat, listening to the sting of the words which, he knew, had been directed at him; who else? I’ll not break. Sticks and stones, but names. Whereas one man laughs, he thought, another must hurt to get his point home, one who is hurt himself, most by his own impotency. He laughed inwardly a little, as was his discipline and felt the pain ease from his chest and head; that strange constriction. A lump of wood on the head from behind on a dark night, he thought as a final fling. O’Connor was talking to someone about something.
Hum, hum, hum-de-hum. (Never to worry.) As long as they only think I’m stupid. He eyed the familiarity of the yard and men nonchalantly. Near him were backs, only further faces and sides, everywhere hum-de-hum of talk. Long as only think stupid, okay.
Eye roamed, idly … a beetle. Christmas beetle ah. So late in the summer, have a short life span too. No-one turned as he rose, stepped, propped, bent, picked, turned, stepped, plopped. Sitting, placed beetle on the palm of his hand, and it lay quite still. Funny little thing, playing dead. You can come alive, I’ll not hurt. Perhaps it is really dead. But crawling when I saw it. Heart attack, what’s that I heard about animals, when you corral, have to give sedative? Otherwise, heart attack.
Not a very heroic death, old beetle, eh. Why die when you can play dead? Why not the beetle fly? How long piece of string?
Fact is, he’s probably old, yes. Finds itself in here, wonders why soil so hard, no give underits feet. The sun beats down and all that too hot to fly, crawls, looking for a leaf. Or the fountain of youth. Or Christmas.
Let’s see . . . December 25-February 25 two months. Like the cicadas, in the trees, trees, the trees. Old beetle, eh. Maybe, born later last of the litter, second litter even. Ha, maybe in prison beetles live longer, is that so, beetle? Not wearing grey. But playing dead, that’s good for a prison beetle.
At that moment the creature in his palm began to stir minutely, then inch forward, force out by degrees its wings, cautious, lift them, prepare, then … fly! Buzzz, sharply up like a helicopter, at the dark and blue sky, out of his sight out of his hand out of the prison yard. He followed its flight with his eyes into the quickening dusk.
Well, he thought, so much for making the beetle as old as I am. It’s still a young man, still can fly.
Never mind, I’ve got some old friends. The tree in front of the infirmary, maybe 100 yearsold that. Parnell, the American Civil War, Federation. Old as the gaol, perhaps it was in the garden of a mansion that was here, before. Humde-hum. Three men in a drum.
Hum-de-hum and three guards emerged from adoor in B block, saying ‘Away we go boys, inside now. Hurry up fellas, get along now, in we go.’
(In we go.) A ritual, no pause to see that the order be executed. Too embarrassing, merely fillm w1th set phrases: ‘Hurray along there.’ ‘In we go,’ not to look at the faces, not to face the looks. (In case of riot, add ‘hurry up.’) Gets cold very quickly out here, a man’s better off inside.
He took a place in the file with only a few behind him. The lights came on in the yard. Pretence of marching to a metal door in the block. Reached the threshold, and a quick glance across the yard, once. Above the blackness of the far wall, through the dazzling light from No. 7 tower he glimpsed the faint yellow and orange sun-glow bathing the edge of the world, beyond.
My eyes are dim
I cannot see . . .
Then he was inside and fumbling with blinking eyes behind his spectacles. Passageway illuminated by naked bulbs, protected of course from those homicidal hands by wire nets, but not from moths. The shadow of these nets was all over the walls like porridge, so that even the walls had bars.
At the end of the narrow corridor and without windows, an about right turn, then a long block of cells beyond a large barred door, open and guarded, surly-faced. Each cell fronted by a similar door, unguarded and open to catch them. A second storey, the same. Every cell could be seen from this big door. To his right, a table, a guard behind it, casual face and quick eyes missing nothing.
Each man walked to his own cell, stood outside it. Like morning commuters outside suburban bungalows, he had often thought, waiting for the wife to kiss them goodbye, one prison to another, the government owns each of these cells.
Kiss me goodnight, sergeant-major …
He walked past four cells on the left, stood before the fifth. No one spoke. The guard at the desk began to call names – as if anyone were absent – ‘My little Johnny can’t come today. as hehas the toothache real bad.’ Other guards lighting cigarettes.
He heard them no more. Presumably he had answered. A silence. His name was called, with urgency.
‘Why don’t you answer the first time?’
‘Sorry, sir.’ This was usual.
Jeanne d’Arc, here. Gandhi, here . . . hardly the same thing, old boy, though it used to work. Oscar O’Flaherty Wills Wilde, here. The call was over. An order from the guard at the desk, each man turned right around, stepped into the cell all the doors slid, etc., shut, dum-de-dum, and, that was the end of a … er … day.
He did not sleep. Removed boots, pants, shirt socks, underpants, singlet, lay naked on the bed. Dark, silent, and a man could think.
Thinking for me is choosing between thoughts that rush at me. Not that anyone is to be preferred to any other.
Now they shut the lights off straight away. The lights went out. When one escapes from a cellblock, the whole block suffers. O’Malley. They rarely get very far. So the authorities make everyone suffer.
He often wondered why he did not have as simple a mind as other men. Three more weeks and restrictions end. Took the pot plants away bastards. Bet they don’t give them back. In the governor’s cottage. His dear wife the lady governess waters them … with her tears of compassion, charitable compassion for the poor. Poor prisoners. Perhaps the dear lady will start a gardening club for us, and donate her pot plants. We can club her on the head with them drag her into the cells, lock her up, smash the pots against her …
He shifted with unease. The end of that train of thought. Still got mousie, my visitor, can’t take that. He felt in the pocket of his shirt, seeking the bread crumbs captured at dinner. Then he reached them under the bunk, over to the wall and deposited them on the concrete. The mouse he knew, would enter about nine o’clock from hole in the wall, a little hole which for some reason, or none, had never been noticed by the guards. In this way, he thought as usual with satisfaction (as usual), nature gets around man’s creations.
Now what? He was not at all sleepy. The mouse and the usual train of thought attendant upon it; had occupied only a few moments of a night that had, for him, not of simple mind, thousands.
Guard outside the bars on padding feet. Stop; torch, shadow of bars on his nude body. He his own prison. He and the dark around him recoiled from the glare.
‘Put your clothes on, nature boy, or mummy will spank you. You can do what you want to, under the sheets.’
Laughter from the cells around. One man lost control, burst forth coughing. The guard yelled ‘Quiet!’ And there was quiet.
‘Sorry sir,’ said he, ‘just going to go to bed.’ And me a grown man.
‘Well hurry up about it.’ The guard’s joke, as usual, had been taken too far for his liking by the prisoners.
(And when I was a good boy, mummy would let me stay up late as an extra treat, and put my’jamas on for me, an’ … an’ … tuck me in… an’ … )
He pulled the pyjama pants over his feet, legs, ample hips. The slight jacket over his shoulders. And you won’t stay awake and talk to TeddyBear, will you, darling? Do up the buttons, one, two, three.
Across the row: ‘Shut up, nature boy!’
The torch. ‘Get into bed.’
‘All right, all right.’ He climbed under the sheets in the usual way. Sheet up to his chin.The second stage toward sleep.
‘Now shut up!’ Torch gone.
They’ll frighten the mouse away. Not as though he doesn’t deserve their consideration. He’s alive like them (not playing dead).
For a while he lay becoming accustomed to the dark, thinking of nothing. By the faint light from the guard’s table he perceived the objects in his cell. Basin. Mirror. (Not suicidal type.) Towel on hook, shelf, with toothpaste. Almost a room in a boarding house, such as he had known, many times, on the outside.
Saw a bird today, a seagull. Rare that. Noticed how he used the wind. Flying is not at all straightforward for a bird. Planes and angles, very subtle, like the sailor. This bird did not aid my theory about the nutriment on the wall, because it did not excrete.
His band moved under the bed, felt for and found the bed pot; security. Not notice it when I put the crumbs out. Tomorrow. Yeah let me see. Well, after work go and see how the little plants gets on. Then … then … let me see .. . was something.
Ah yes, the cat, in the leather room. Last day there, have to say goodbye. Sees a lot of men come and go. Old cat, like. Ahhhh. Much better. Feel the sleep come on. Tum te tum.
Jesus! I can’t bear it! Molly! Molly! Where are you, I gotta get out! Ooohhh, God in Heaven, Molly help me!
He rose out of bed, eyes wet and streaming down his cheeks and walked unevenly to the bars. He shook’ them powerfully with both clenched hands.
‘I want to get out!’ He had screamed. The row was alive with voices. Padded running. The torch full on him.
‘I want to get out of here! I want to see Molly! Where is Molly? Let me out! Where is Molly?’ Pounded with the heel of his hand against those bars. ‘Tell me where she is! Let me out! I don’t have to stay in here!
He choked on ‘have’ and fell sobbing to the floor, still clutching the bars. His tears fell without restraint on to the concrete, as he broke the immense silence he had generated with his own desperate sobs. The sobs dragged at his lungs, suddenly sore, and rasped through his throat, suddenly hoarse. And as the fit began to pass from him amid the interminable silence, as quickly as it had come, his hanging frame becoming limper and limper, the concrete seemed to him to grow vaster and vaster, to fill more and more of the universe, until it enveloped him, and at length, lying flat upon it, he was still. Nothing but the faint regularity of his breathing told of the thread of life still in him. With the last conscious breath left in his lungs he said, almost soundlessly, ‘You can’t keep me here until I die. You can’t keep me here until . . .’
The guard stood still, and in their cells for a brief time the prisoners stood still also. Then, slowly and then quicker, the movement returned to the row, and the buzz of noise which for once was not stopped by the guards.
He lay still, unable to raise his fist to smash the concrete below him, knowing that he would not die, and that this was in no way, in no respect, the end, and that nothing he had done, or could do, would prevent him waking the next morning, perhaps in his cell, perhaps in the infirmary, but still with bars around him. Perhaps with the hook and the mirror still on the wall, perhaps not, but still in a . . . this . . . prison.
The last time, the other time, he had succeeded in smashing his hand against the concrete, hoping that it would die, and the dying would spread to the rest of him. He had broken one knuckle.
The guard was still standing there. He was aware now, somehow, that he had lost consciousness for a little time, and for that time away from time he had not been a prisoner. But he had no memory of where he had been.
There was no point in delaying it any further. He raised his head, surprised to find it so easy, and blinked wetly into the torchlight.
‘I do not feel well. Will you call the doctor?’
‘Yeah, sure. I’ll tell ‘im to give you some sleeping pills, too.’
He padded away toward the desk. This was not unusual.