Monday, 16 May 2011

First prize winner

I dreamt of love.

By Michael Marett-Crosby

I dream of being decent, practise smiling at a wife. I make a village from the lumps and scars across my wall. I take walks there in my mind. I notice – no one rings the cops. Later I meet with some friends. We drink but not too much.

While all the time I know I am a tomb, my headstone carved. He was in prison from birth, is what it says. So I go through whole months lost in unlived lives. Sometimes a week can pass without my meeting me at all.

But there was one day when I dreamt of love.

‘Take a half hour outside, Lomax.’

The officers were often kind, banged up as much as we were. This one was an alright sort – sometimes he even smiled. Today he opened the wing door for me and called out, ‘Close it behind you.’ He had already turned back to real life on Jeremy Kyle.

I should explain. I am a womble. That’s prison talk for someone who clears trash. Guys throw stuff from their windows, anything they can, a way of unmaking the home-spell of this place. Wombling is reckoned a rank job but I got paid. The best part is that I get outside alone.

Outside. Alone. There are no words for what that does to me. I walked the grass around our wing, conjuring unlikely lives. First I had a Cadillac waiting for me at the gate. I even tried, ‘Hi, Mum,’ but that was too far, too hard. Eventually I settled into one of my favourites, a prison governor who told me, ‘Lomax, we’ve got your sentence wrong. You have been an innocent for your whole life.’

And it was while I grinned into this kindly world that I saw that the gate into the main rec. yard was open.

I looked around. It was nothing new that this prison was chaos. We were the so-whats, neither kids nor nonces, not a single famous killer among us. This was just a warehouse for the storage of unwanted men.

Still, it was stupid to have left the yard unlocked. It was all territory, this group and that, lines invisible but you got hurt if you did not see and obey them. I had no gang, I had no land. I would not have even gone in there except with my womble kit to show I didn’t matter. I had black bin bags. I wore gloves. The prison issued a metal claw for scooping up syringes.

I looked. I crossed through the doorway. For the first time, it was all mine. I thought of that moment in Titanic – I could stretch out my arms and own the whole vast sea.

Around the yard ran a fence. To lean against it was the nearest we could get to freedom. During outdoor association, only the dealers hung out here, and they would not care for a womble standing happy on their turf. But they were all inside. I walked into their sacred place. I put out a hand and felt the mesh. It was cold and thin and meagre, fag-ends flicked through to the farther side. I took out my womble’s claw and pulled one in. It proved something – Paul Lomax, 500486, had just made the world a better place.

That alone would have been magic to last me many days. But it was only the beginning. For it was then – I swear it’s true – then that I saw him.


Christ knows how he got there. Double Christ knows why. There was a crop of cigarette ends and some lumps of frozen gum. Slim pickings for anyone, especially for him. I mean, he was a rabbit, after all.

He stared at me. I stared at him. I picked him up. He shook. He might have dropped a pellet but I knew I had been made of shit since the age of four, people had told me. The rabbit thought to jump away; I felt his muscles tense. But I’d learnt well how to keep a prisoner. C&R, they called it, Control and Restraint. I made a cuff round his neck with my fingers and then shoved the rabbit into my black bin bag. He kicked out like a mad thing, like a guy locked in a van. We all punched and screamed the first few times. So now I kept the rabbit tight, the way officers did with new guys. I made my way back to the door. I was let in without a glance.

We were not allowed pets, the sort of thing that made the papers: Prison animals keep animals, what a disgrace. A few guys fed cell rats or mice. A couple talked to spiders. I told no one of the rabbit. No one asked.

That evening, I skipped dinner. I was busy with my rabbit. I had only made a start when Corbett hammered on my doors. ‘There’s going to be a fight,’ he called. ‘There’s going to be a fight.’ I wondered what it was today: football, probably, or drugs, maybe a lad with have-me eyes. Normally I would have gone to watch. There was nothing else to do. But tonight I had to process the new inmate.

Where to start? As at Reception – name, age, offence and religion. That was all prison needed so as to know a man right through.

The rabbit’s name was easy. ‘Hello, Real,’ I said, Real because he was real. That was that.

‘Age?’ I looked at him. In that foul time when the mind is old with knowing while the body still looks fresh. That made Real vulnerable. I would shack him with a trusted cellmate. ‘You’re in with Lomax,’ I told him. ‘He’s ok.’

Real did not seem that pleased. He was finding prison grim – first night is tough. He’d been scooped up without the bother of a court. He had not known that he was guilty until he got here. He might have been thinking about what he had lost. ‘Your past is simple,’ I told him. ‘Everything you’ve ever done is criminal intent.’ As for his future – he was an offender now and then an ex-offender for ever.

‘Your crime is that you got close to this place,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry.’

Finally, I drew a mental line through the box marked religion. No god and we were done, Real was sent down.

His eyes were dull. ‘You’re a natural,’ I said. ‘Here, try some food.’

He sniffed at it. ‘It tastes of other people’s fingers,’ I explained. Real had a nibble and it wasn’t rain-washed grass. But then again it wasn’t all that bad, not really. ‘There,’ I said, ‘that’s your next lesson. We live – it’s a lot of the problem here.’

Sharing a cell took some learning. Real wasn’t sure where he should go. Last night he might have kipped with other rabbits, sex and all. ‘Not here,’ I said and put him in a box of legal papers. I tore up my last appeal to make a nest.

Bang-up came and went. I tried to watch some telly. One channel showed clever cops. The others were all laughter. I checked on Real and he was sleeping, curled into a ball. ‘You were born for this,’ I said. I knew we would be friends.

I had the psych on Wednesday. Real came as well. ‘This is my rabbit,’ I told her. She did not ask how I had found him. ‘He is called Real. Do you know why?’

‘I think I do.’

‘Go on then.’

She paused. Speaking outside the covers of her manual was not natural for her. ‘I think Real’s called Real,’ she said slowly, ‘because he’s real, the only thing you’ve got that isn’t poisoned by prison. Also, Real needs you to stay alive for him. He shows you’re real.’

I went mental at that. There’s decent violence on my form. Except I didn’t fight. I cried. ‘Bog off.’ I spoke through tears. ‘I don’t know why I come to see you. People like you, trying to give me stuff to live for, you’ve wrecked my life.’

That is the truth. I would have had less pain if I’d not known brief kindnesses.

But the psych had not finished. ‘I think you should keep Real, Paul,’ she said. ‘Keep him alive. Find life yourself. This could save you.’ She added this last bit as if it was something worth doing.

I had been serving prison time since I was sixteen. But that day I believed her. I forgot the rule that binds us – never love.

Actually, that isn’t right. It is okay to love but prison loves must always be dead first: girls out of my past who don’t remember me, dreams of big-breasted future conquests I will never have. It is the same with drug lads selling themselves in the showers. All we have in here is necrophilia.

But I grew to love Real Rabbit. Love – I was not complete without him. Love – he made sense of my day. Love – that Rabbit stayed awake with me through many empty nights.

Real lived in my world. He got used to my pad. I’d pick him up last thing at night and that was deep magic, Real was alive because I made him so.

There was a guy called Ashley. I started to get on with him. It was as if I’d learnt from Real how to make a friend. Ashley was ok, pretty much the same as me.

Then word came of a release scheme, Ashley a possible because he wasn’t down for violence. He only hurt himself. So now he hoped, and so did I, that he was going to walk. Then we got caught inside the story, talked of nothing else.

Then someone changed the rules. There’s been a campaign in the press. Ashley and a bunch of guys became dangerous again. New words were spoken, Indeterminate Protection of the Public. No one knew what they meant. Ashley went for himself that night, as I knew he would.

I heard the night patrol. Then came the shouts and then the bells and then the pounding feet. I’ve got to give it to those guys, they try to keep us breathing.

Real was scared. He set to shaking. I tried to help him understand. ‘These walls drip sickness into us,’ I said. ‘But you and me, we’ve got each other. We will be alright.’ Real’s eyes had a black sparkle. I thought that he might talk.

Ashley survived. He’d only slashed himself. The POs patched him up. One of them came to my cell the next morning, said I could help.

‘What with?’ I asked.

‘With Ashley. He’s your mate.’

I was proud. I remembered what that psych had said. Real needs you to stay alive for him. Now Ashley too.

That morning I lent Real to Ashley. He held the rabbit in his arms. ‘You care, don't you,’ he said.

‘I really do.’

A screw gave Ash a bar of chocolate from the out. That was good of him.

Two doses of goodness at once? It would kill any one of us.

Ashley fed Real the chocolate. It messed up his insides. I watched Real puke up brown stuff as the life jerked out of him.

I stood there, nothing I could do. By lunchtime Real was meat. I walked the yard that afternoon during general rec., wondering if Real might come back to me. I passed a crowd and I heard Ashley. He was talking up my story. ‘Crazy Lomax, guess what? He’s been talking to a rabbit.’ The guys laughed.

If I’d had any guts, I would have topped myself that day. You love in here and you are finished, finished – I should have known. But I did not have the guts. I live. I live. Don’t read this any more. Leave me alone.

Michael Marett-Crosby worked in the UK prison system and based this story on someone he knew well during this time. "When the events of this story had worked their course, much as they do in the story," says Michael, "I promised him I would one day tell it to other people. 'Why?' he wanted to know. 'Who would be interested?' I don't know where he is now. Prison life is like that. People move and they do not hang on to yesterdays, there being too many tomorrows."

Since leaving the prison service, Michael has been working full time as a writer, mostly on a novel set in a British prison, Two Thirds Man. He has also won other competetions and has published three works of non-fiction.

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