“I reached around and realised immediately that this wasn’t the type of prison I was accustomed to.”
muse: matthew leitch
I couldn’t understand how it had come to this.
In fact, as I stood on the threadbare carpet, my toes feeling the burnt nylon crusts from ancient cigarettes in unknown fingers, and the inexorable weight of hindsight stooping my shoulders and deflating my lungs, I could not believe that, of the myriad possibilities that had been cast at my feet in my first nine days of freedom in half a decade, that this was the one and only unquestionable solution that could be drawn.
On the 27th of June, 1998, at 3:14 pm on the kind of day that makes you wish for an excuse and another warm body to curl up with under vibrant, Aztec blankets with something warm and milky, I had felt a sound. That may confuse you, it might even hasten you to irrational conclusions of my oratory abilities, but this sound had been very distinctly felt, not heard. It was of the sort that brings involuntary curses to your lips in realisation of the repercussions yet to be physically witnessed. It was that uniquely distinct crunch of a crashing car, that eerily beautiful tinkle of a shattered pane of glass, a sound so loaded with ominous foreboding that your ears are no longer its most prevalent witnesses and your face scrunches into grimace at its cause.
The gavel had sounded off the anvil in resonant finality, but the small disk of wood bolted to the judge’s roost was not what that small wooden hammer had struck. His hand had raised, the blow delivered, my solar plexus the victim, and even now I could feel the bruise it had left. That mallet of fate had shattered everything secure, everything known, everything loved and free in my life, the shards falling to dust, leaving an endless, darkened abyss where once my heart had beat and my soul had sung. I felt my chest implode into nothingness, like the stoved in, painted visage of a fragile china doll, leaving nothing but the boundless emptiness of hollow dreams that would never transpire.
That sound that I had felt, the one that was yet to reach my ears or my conscious rationality, would remain with me, echoing onwards through the 1,825 days in which I was absent from the world.
She had gone free, stuck to the story, regurgitated it verbatim again and again, to cop, lawyer, judge and jury; she had been drifting off to sleep in the passenger seat, she had woken to the impact and had stayed with the girl with the broken leg until the ambulance arrived, while I remained in the car – in the driver’s seat of the car – in shock. I had told her she shouldn’t have been driving, but she’s headstrong that way, never wishing to be told what to do, condescended to to be told she had drunk too much. She hadn’t been wasted, but our three years together had made her inebriated tells glaringly obvious to me; the slight sneer when she disagreed with something, her increased and passionate gesticulations. To others, these would just appear to be her caught up in the moment and socially excited, but I knew she was a drink away from the onset of sways and slurs, two at best from the arguments, the ire and the tears.
I, on the other hand, was deep into one of my occasional protracted abstinences, stone-cold sobriety causing her towering persona to cast me into the inky recesses of her shadow. They were her friends, I was there for moral support, little more than a corsage ready to pick up the pieces at the end of the night. When departure had come, I instinctively opened the passenger door for her, but a defiantly raised eyebrow told a different story, her limelight-bathed ego denying my chivalry.
She had hit the girl on a pedestrian crossing at a mercifully slow roll, creeping through the silent streets of our hometown. It was her fault – clean-cut, plain and simple. There was simply no denying it by her, me or even the most robust and factually deviant lawyer, but I will always defend her, as I did then, despite the ramifications that I held in my hand today after that event so many years ago. It was carelessness at worst, a dark street, some overgrown shrubs and a lone pedestrian in the middle of the night. It was not the alcohol, but no breath test, blood test or walking of a chalk line would testify to objective circumstance, only the fumes of red wine that coursed through her body.
My last act of heroism, those gestures she detested and felt so belittled by, would be the one she would gratefully receive: I would take the fall. I’d seen enough Hollywood movies and law-based TV shows to know the drill on autopilot. “I was driving,” I said, and wrestled to unfasten my seat belt. “You were half asleep,” as I undid hers. “You woke on the impact. Now repeat it back to me.”
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…”
“LILY! We haven’t got time to fuck around. Climb over me and sit in the passenger seat. Now repeat what I say. I was driving…”
“I was driving,”
“lily – fuck – no, I was driving, not you,”
“You were driving,”
“Good, and you were half asleep,”
“I was half asleep.” She reached her leg into the passenger foot well and I began sliding beneath her.
“You woke on the impact,” as I slid my arse into the driver’s seat.
“I woke on the impact,” and she thudded against the passenger door as her weight shifted into the seat.
“Now go help the girl.”
“Now go help…”
“No Lily – go and help the girl. Get out of the car and go and help her. She has to see you get out of the passenger’s side so she knows I was driving. She’ll be fine – cuts and bruises. We didn’t hit her hard.”
“Jesus Christ, I killed her…” her voice trailed off, timid, meek, in absolute, terrified shock of what she had done.
“Lily, no.” I reached across and cupped her face in my hands, my eyes boring into hers, mentally driving our newly fabricated truth into her mind. “I was driving, it was an accident, we didn’t hit her hard. You have to go check on her. You have to be the one who cares for her, the one who shows her kindness and mercy. She has to like you. Tell her I am in shock. Tell her I am sorry, but tell her I was driving.”
And to her credit, for pretty much the first time in our entire relationship, she did exactly what I told her.
It is a surreal experience, going to prison.
One minute, every cell in your being is hoping and praying, your solicitor is whispering in your ear words that you can’t quite comprehend, the judge is raining down his justice, the whispers of the gallery surround you like breaking waves on a sandy beach, and then – crack. You feel that sound, and everything goes silent, numb.
The one mercy of my conviction is that, by the time I was transported, processed and interred in that vast, cement oubliette, the other inmates were behind bars for the night, locked into their pens like rodeo bulls, just waiting for dawn to spring forth in all their fury.
As Dumas’ Count and millions more before me must also have experienced, it was the fierce clang of bars on bars, the ramming home of where I was, that brought reality flooding back, an acute awareness of the shit my life had become. I looked down at my dozing cellmate, snorting, and rolling onto his other side to face away from me and the guard’s searching beam. I hope I don’t get raped – I hope I don’t get raped – I hope I don’t get raped.
I’ve always got on with people. I’ve also always considered myself socially inept, but I have managed to procure or fabricate a façade, making people like me and forget me in exactly the same moment. I don’t ruffle feathers, I don’t speak loudly, I don’t hold steadfast opinions, and this became my shield, a cloak of invisibility under which I could pass the achingly long minutes of hours of days, of weeks and months and years until I had served her time for her. The things we do for fucking love. Because of my genially beige personality, I got off lightly; a fractured cheekbone in my first week for eating my lunch, which I had apparently agreed to give to Chaz, a 63-year-old with a long, white tobacco-stained goatee who would later become my mate, and three broken metatarsals the first time I refused to suck cock, but that was all. Not that I became the go-to for the inmates’ source of a good time and a quick blow. I held my ground enough for everyone to know that I wouldn’t fall over, but I wasn’t a threat. The six times a blade was held to my throat and I was told to open wide I obliged, and I defy anyone to be in my position to not take what they’re given, but I wasn’t going to do it again.
I’m not a big guy and I’m a pussy when it comes to confrontation. Hell, that’s how I’d come to find myself in this position. She would only have to say a few words and I’d back down, let her have her way and avoid the hassle of a conflict. Psychology would be my weapon, and on these dough-brained petty criminals who had been spawned in the sticky, crusty scum layer clinging to the rim of the gene pool, it was all I needed.
Four out of the six penises I’d allowed into my mouth belonged to the same guy. Not that he had four of them you understand. If he had, I’m sure is ensuing illustrious career in the porn industry would have prevented him landing himself in this gargantuan shitbox for ripping off businessmen’s Mercedes and BMWs from an underground car park in Queen Street. He was the third, and from that moment, at least for four knee-buckling rendezvous, I was his bitch.
As I gulped down the plastic cup of water, the back of my throat still burning, the corners of my lips stinging from over-extension and involuntary tears from gagging still trickling from my eyes, I knew this had to stop.
“Frank,” (why are they always called Frank or Bob or one of those names you could never picture parents looking down at their newborn child and saying ‘I know, let’s call him…’)
“Ooh, tough girl wants some more action,” Frank retorted to the jeers of his posse.
“Ha ha! Frank, we both know you’d kick my arse! Nah man, look, I was just thinking…”
Frank’s already wrinkled forehead furrowed further, “eh?”
“…well, I feel like we’ve got to know each other pretty well. You know, we’ve got just about as intimate as two straight guys can get. I got you those cigarettes, you got me that whisky for my sore throat. You know, I feel like we’re kind of mates, yeah?”
I could see synaptic sparks behind his eyes like the wheel of a gasless lighter yearning for flame. “Eh?”
“Well Frank, mates don’t suck their mates’ cocks do they?” And with that Freudian flash of psychological ingenuity I was not only a free man, but more importantly, I was a protected man.
The first six months of my incarceration were the hardest, that’s for sure. Looking back at it now, that one tenth of my Sing-Sing sojourn felt like three quarters of my time inside. After those months, I began to learn. I learned how to talk, how to walk, where to look, when to bow down and when to stand tall. I learned that there is no place in prison for emotion of any kind, be it anger, fear, love or hate. I learned who were enemies to be avoided at all costs, and who were friends who had your back, but mostly that no one was really a friend at all and could flip at the slightest change of favour. I learned to bury every scrap of emotion I had, to choke back tears, to hide everything that was me in the darkness and solitude of the night, those moments in which I felt more alone than I could have possibly imagined, but utterly free to be me.
Prison is hard, however easy you get it. Low security, no beatings, no homoerotic scenarios in the shower stalls, it’s still the toughest place you will ever go. It isn’t the threat and the fear. It is the loneliness and the inability to ever drop your guard or bear your soul for even a glimmer. It is watching everything you know of yourself, your idiosyncrasies, your personality, your passions, your happiness, your very soul ebb away into an endless fog, slipping from your fingers without a single hope of return.
Time passed. It took its sweet time doing it, but it passed. I helped Frank write parole letters to his lawyer, I developed a mean left hook and I got more in shape than I’d ever been before. Shitty, carb- and fat-laden food and too much time with nothing to do but work out saw me pack on the kilos and stack on the muscle.
I would look down at my exaggerated pectorals and abdominals like I was looking at a stranger’s body, but the real stranger lay within. I no longer recognised the person who gazed back at me from the polished aluminium mirror, I became disconnected from the sight of my own hands, my voice sounded like that of a foreigner, I would shrug off brushes with violence with workaday nonchalance. Who was this alien I had become? They had given me a sentence but taken so much more.
For the first year, I craved for my freedom, the date of my release looming in monolithic ominousness in a far distance I could not quite comprehend ever reaching. A strobe-like ticking resided in my periphery, the hands of time counting down the seconds to the day on which I would regain life. If my condemnation had been three years shorter, I might have hoped to survive. I could have locked my soul away, cocooned it for it to magnificently emerge when once more immersed in the glorious light of freedom. But holding on is exhausting and endless hope will eventually consume you.
When my day of liberation finally arrived, it was not the jubilant celebration I had pictured in those early days. There was no one to greet me, there was no moment of raising my hands to the sky in a cinematic moment of glory, sunbeams illuminating me through quenching summer shower. This was not the Shawshank Redemption. The was the cold and brutal hand of reality ripping me from the secure blanket of familiarity that my prison life had created.
When you become institutionalised, it doesn’t matter how bad your world is. When it is the norm, it is everything and any change to it, no matter how positive, becomes terrifying. When the sliding grate of the unseen dead bolt behind me signalled my liberation it resonated inside me with as much fear as the metallic knell of the bars on my first night, as the sonorous thunder of descending gavel in the cavernous courtroom of my conviction.
She wasn’t there, but I hadn’t expected her to be. My final memory of her, and the last time I had seen her, was in that same courtroom from the corner of my eye as I was handcuffed and lead, still wearing the suit I had carefully selected to give the best impression of responsibility and innocence, to my fate. I remember the feeling of my heart as if at 300 metres below sea level, the three thousand kilopascals of pressure bearing in from all sides, that suffocating loss in another’s sorrow. After the first week, I thought she must have been too heartbroken to walk through the chain link fence incarcerating me, to see me in this tragic predicament. By the end of the month, I realised she just didn’t give a shit. They had not been tears of mourning in the courtroom that day, they had been tears of relief at the bullet she had dodged, guilt for the innocent victim of her crime as she witnessed the sword of Damocles descend upon another’s neck that should have been hers.
The twelve-step release program had begun before my departure, preparing me for what lay outside the doors that had metamorphosed from crypt to sanctuary over my time behind them. I had a pocket full of phone numbers, brochures on mental health, the empty assurance that I was not alone and would be supported through this transition. I had a job lined up at a scrap yard – if that could have been any more clichéd – and an address that I could call ‘home’, at least until I got on my feet or they kicked me out, whichever might remorselessly come first. Two steps from the door and with a world of opportunity beckoning, all I wanted to do was turn around and walk back in. “I’m not ready,” I would say. “I don’t belong out here.” In that moment, I realised why there are so many repeat offenders in this world. These jail-hoppers aren’t criminals by design, they aren’t inherently bad people. Their first mistake or bad decision had transformed their reality. They, like me, could no longer function as a conventional member of society and the familiarity and structure of prison life became their lure back into the underworld of corruption and petty crime – their ticket back home.
When I arrived at the address I had been designated, a stranger threw his hand at me and I flinched. I hadn’t shaken hands with anyone since going in; any gesticulation in my direction had only been in threat, and I felt foolish at my subconscious reaction at this genial gesture.
The housing service representative smiled meekly, withdrew his hand and motioned for me to come inside. This is a place people come to die, I thought, like an aged care centre or palliative hospice. The cheap, nylon carpet was good for two things: shrugging off the stains of spilled food and vomit, and removing your epidermis. The smell was somewhere between surgical-grade cleaning products and bodily fluids, though not overpoweringly so, not offputtingly so, and all I wanted to do was get to my room and close the door behind me, seal myself into a self-manufactured cell, recreate the security I had felt in minimum security.
The housing service guy, in his shiny, plastic tie and a shirt so cheap I could see the black hairs on his chest through the fabric, smiled that meek smile again as he opened the door for me, a smile that screamed “don’t hit me,” and ushered in images of crooked-legged dogs pissing in fear at the swinging boot of their heartless masters.
I was in a bubble again, like the bubble that had swallowed me, emitted by the withered, spittle-sprayed lips of the judge in his final words to me. It was if the treble had been stolen from the world, every sound coming only in bass and consonants. I couldn’t make out what the spineless clerk of the state was saying to me, but I smiled back, trying my best to assure him that he was in no danger, although I had forgotten how to convey such compassionate sentiment and my expression came out more as if my week-long constipation was just about to break in spectacular fashion than one of reassuring passivity.
I took the keys from him with a nod and went inside, finally finding solitude, peace and the loneliness that had become my asylum. I opened the sash window to the gritty, shuffling, inner city traffic below and sat on the sill as I lit a cigarette and watched life voyeuristically, distinctly separated from the absent-minded drones on the street wandering through life without a care or a soul. ‘Who are these people,’ I thought. ‘I can never be one of them’.
I had two days to settle in before starting my job, and I didn’t move from that spot, except to get a cushion to pad my numbing buttocks and to make endless rounds of plain white toast with less nutritional value than that same, cheap nylon carpet which, in all its inanimate insipidness, had become my nemesis. There was nothing – I had nothing – I was nothing. The last five years had been a warm-up; my punishment was just beginning.
On the third day, I took the two buses and 30-minute walk to my new employment on the outskirts of the city. Attendance was obligatory. If I missed a day, I would have to see my parole officer, if I missed two I’d be risking another sentence. The whole way there and back, I didn’t make eye contact with a single person, shoe-gazing through the entire journey. Fear gripped me, but it wasn’t a fear for myself. It was them I was scared for. If they knew who I was, if they could see the life I had endured these past years, what would they think or say or do? Mothers would sweep their infants behind them for protection, nestling them out of sight of the ‘bad man’. Old ladies would clutch their handbags a little tighter, with furtive glances assuring them that the criminal wasn’t approaching. Worst, the tattooed, pumped-up thugs would square up, puff-chested, enticing me to violence to prove their worth and bolster their maladjusted egos.
On the first Sunday of my freedom, I boarded the bus once more, made the transfer, sat, eyes affixed on my dusty, steel-toe-capped work boots, for the second leg of the journey and again walked the 30-minutes to the scrap yard. I knew it was closed before I’d even left my house, and that there was no purpose in my commute. I just couldn’t think of what else I could do for a whole day. Sitting in the dust and gravel of the parking lot, the chicken wire of the fencing weaving criss-cross indents into the flesh of my back and igniting a morbid reminiscence for the jail-bound view of my former self, the realisation dawned on me. It washed over me like the first shower of a coal miner off a double-shift, cascading through my soul, taking with it the grime of depression, that tenacious sense of emptiness that had plagued me these recent days.
I reached my right hand up, knitting my fingers through the mesh, and hauled myself to my feet. I scanned the length of the fence, searching for its most vulnerable and accessible point of entry. At the back corner of the property, two lengths of fencing came to an end with thick scaffold poles firmly embedded into the dirt side by side. The gap between the poles was far too narrow to contemplate squeezing my body through, but it would provide adequate traction to wedge my heavy boots between and make the ascent.
It was simple, the fence more a deterrent than a functional barrier, and, placing my hands carefully between the thorny prongs of the barbed wire crowning the fence like a macabre Christian homage, I hoisted myself over and dropped to the other side. I was in familiar territory even if only of a few days, and I knew I was alone.
Taking my time, I wandered around the yard, feeling more at peace than before I could even remember. There was something beautiful in the twisted forms of rusting scrap metal, the ashen coppers of the rusting steel, the sparkle of chrome in the descending sun’s light. It was winter and the days were short, but it suddenly occurred to me how time had eluded me in the nothingness of my present life and I realised that I must begin a purposeful search if I was to find what I was looking for before the light failed.
After a few heavy tugs, the corner of corrugated steel sheeting gave way from the work shed wall. Endless prison days lifting weights had given me a strength that I had never known and rarely put to purpose, other than in the repetitiveness of my workout, and it surprised me what I could accomplish with this stranger’s body. Squatting low, I squeezed through the gap of metal. A stinging retort on my trailing leg and ripping of fabric as the ragged corner of sheeting tore into my calf, but I wasn’t concerned. A quick rub relinquished the minor irritation and smeared a streak of crimson across my palm, and I rubbed my hands together, sniggering as I wondered at the melodrama that had possessed Lady Macbeth given the ease in which I had eradicated the stain.
I peered into the gloaming of the shed, sure I would find my prize.
It hung limply across my lap as I took the bus back to my apartment. I crossed my leg uneasily as I noticed an older man surreptitiously glancing at my torn and bloodstained pants. It wasn’t any sight of butchery or gruesome atrocity, but I knew any self-respecting member of society would feel less than comfortable seeing an untended injury on a public bus. I glanced up, having hidden the wound behind my other leg. A silver strand of his thinning hair had fallen from the crest of his balding head and hung against the side of his nose. Catching himself staring, he glanced at me, smiled weakly and raised his hand to sweep the errant hairs back into place in an unconscious action he must have repeated a hundred thousand times, his thumb scooping the strands and his index and middle fingers smoothing them back into place across his rapidly receding fringe. I looked out the window and stayed that way, despite the growing ache in my twisted neck, until my stop appeared on the other side of the glass.
The light fitting came away easily enough in my hands, a butter knife serving as adequate substitute for a screwdriver, and left little damage, though as I looked up into the cavity above, I knew I would have to remove more of the ceiling’s plasterboard for my purpose. As I scraped with the knife, the chalk plaster fell across my face and in my eyes, but I didn’t stop until the hole was large enough to easily reach my forearm up into. The scarred and splintered table that stood in the middle of the room gave me more than enough height for my work, and I wondered what that table must have witnessed in its life, whether it had cradled to inebriated heads of post-incarceration deadbeats like myself, whether a family had ever sat at its four sides and talked about their varied days over a roast dinner, whose son or mother or grandfather had made each indentation, with what and why.
I had found the joist I had been searching blindly for with my hand and, having accomplished my purpose, withdrew my arm in another shower of plaster chunks and dust, spluttering slightly as I inhaled at the wrong moment. I took a leak, removed my clothes and stepped into the scale-stained bath, turning on the shower and flinching backwards at the cold stream of water. It warmed slowly, and I stood under the rose with my eyes closed, head hung, the warm water caressing the back of my neck, calming me though my ears still strained for the sound of the unwelcome shower companions I had occasionally received inside.
I stood that way for twenty minutes, not moving, not washing, allowing the water to flow down my body, hoping it could wash with it the invisible bars of this intangible prison my life had become. Inside, I could deal with it, I had focus and purpose. I could see my enemies, feel the bars of the cell, I could live with direction and calculation. Here, the only surety was nothingness – no one would be knocking on my door to visit, none would remember my name. It was like falling into the blackened waters of a lake and leaving no ripple.
I dried with a towel more bereft of absorption capabilities than that fucking nylon carpet, but it wiped the water from my skin, which was all I needed. I dressed again and took what I had found at the scrap yard from where it hung in the centre of the room. I was no seaman and had never been a boy scout, this was not going to be the expertly crafted noose seen in pirate movies and westerns, but it would serve its purpose.
I had realised that my only option was to escape.
I felt for the unprofessional knot behind my head. I reached around and realised immediately that this wasn’t the type of prison I was accustomed to. There were no walls to climb, no doors to break down. There was only one way out of this sentence.
I inhaled deeply, not to fill my lungs with the oxygen of which they would soon be starved, but to bring peace to my heart. For the first time in too long to count, I was in control, and I was completely at peace. A Zen-like calm washed over me, a stillness; no more fear, no more hope, no more torment. Me, now, and nothing more.
I leaned my body onto my left foot, felt the slight ache from the cut on my calf and the table below me lift gently onto two legs. One more breath, a gentle goodbye, a shift in weight and I would be gone.
But something stopped me.
I eased the table back onto its four rickety legs and opened my eyes. Something was there, something watching me, something stopping me from my purpose. I turned my head slowly, the collar of rope rasping against the skin of my neck.
In the corner of the room, where the nylon carpet was curling from the skirting board like a withering Autumnal leaf, in front of a gnawed and rough-hewn hole, sat a mouse on its hind legs. Its eyes were fixed on me and I could not tell if it was terrified, curious, or marvelling at the utter stupidity of this pink, hairless thing standing on a table in the middle of the room with a rope tied around its neck.
In its paws, it clutched the slightly charcoaled corner of a slice of the shitty white toast I had subsisted on since my emancipation.
“You’ll get no nutrition out of that buddy,”
And I laughed.
A mouse had saved my life.