My English teacher, Mr Jackson, who I had in the first year of high school, told us that the worst thing about going to prison is that prisoners lose their imagination. That stuck with me, because he was my favorite teacher and I believed everything he said. Course, he’d never been to prison, and now I know he couldn’t have been more wrong.
It was the fear of not having access to books in prison that forced me to hold my temper as long as I did.
On my first day in prison I asked if I could get a book out of the library—you see, I was that naive. Officer Perkins, or Piggy as she’s known, laughed and laughed. It was the same laugh, hollow and mean, when I asked if we had access to higher education courses.
When my sister came to visit, she brought me a book. I asked for a lengthy one. God, it pained me to shop for literature by weight, but beggars can’t be choosers. She brought me Infinite Jest, good lass that she is. She carried it in like she was holding a baby, in one arm. Her other arm was in a pot, still. The bastard screws had taken her sling off her, so she had to use her one good arm to clutch the injured arm as well as the massive book. The screws just watched, didn’t offer to help. I wonder how they’ve been brought up. I opened my mouth to tell them it wouldn’t kill them to have some bloody manners, but I shut it again. I did have some sense.
‟No one’s signed your pot,” I joked.
‟No.” She didn’t have anyone to sign her pot now that I was in here.
‟I’d only write something rude anyway.”
‟I know you would.” She tried to smile. She looked exhausted. ‟The lawyer said he’s transferring a hundred and fifty pounds a week to your commissary, so just say if it’s not enough.”
“Thanks, that should do. Everything’s so expensive in here. It’s the boredom that’s doing my head in.”
We tried to avoid the silence, but it was there. We couldn’t avoid it. No point talking about the trial dates or anything, she was calling my solicitor every day for updates.
‟What’s going on with you,” I asked her finally.
‟I signed the contract on a new flat, moving in at the end of the month.”
‟Oh yeah?” I asked. I was hungry for details, but I didn’t want to push her. Interfering in her life is what won me this stay at the Ritz. “What’s it like?” A hedged question.
‟Well, it’s in Shad.” She pulled a face. ‟It’s cheap enough that I don’t have to share with strangers. I’m too old for that shit.”
Shad was the estate we’d grown up on. She’d be miserable there, after all we’d been through to get out and never go back.
‟Listen, Kay, I’ve got money, let me pay your rent on something nice while you get back on your feet.” I knew as I said it that she’d never take it.
‟It’s okay, it’s paid for out of Universal Credit, and I’ve got a bit saved up that they don’t know about that’ll tide me over ’til I find a job again.” She whispered that last part. The screws pretend they’re not listening, but they blatantly are. It’s like a soap opera for them, listening to the inmates and their families.
I wanted to ask about Pete, but I didn’t dare. Kay and I were very different. If I saw a problem, I ran at it head-on and got it sorted. Kay would back away until the problem was just a speck on the horizon. It might be chasing her for the rest of her life, but she’d keep pretending it wasn’t there.
We chatted about the women’s refuge she was in, how patronizing some of the staff were, how completely batshit some of the other residents were, and how her tampons were always getting nicked. Sounded a lot like this place.
Piggy was the biggest arsehole in the place, but ironically she was the only one without a side-gig. The rest were smuggling so much shit in that they must have come into work strapped up like suicide bombers. You got brownie points with the screws if you did distro for them. They got money; we got brownie points that translated to the good behavior reports. I’d gone to a school that conditioned me to work slavishly for useless merits and certificates, so I was primed for it.
I wanted to use the library, but reason the screws said no, and the inmates said, ‟The library ain’t for books, love.” The library is where all the dealing went down. It made me laugh. Living in Shad growing up, we’d been robbed more times than we’d had hot dinners, and every single time, the scrotes would take any absolute shit that was remotely electronic, but they wouldn’t touch the bookshelves. Me and Kay kept our bank cards, library cards, spare emergency cash and all that in weighty tomes like Fowler’s Modern English and it was always safe as houses, so to speak. Personally, I think drugs and books are an excellent combination, but no one else agrees.
It was that copy of the Infinite Jest that kicked it all off. I kept it under my pillow. I knew Mary, my cellmate, would have zero interest or use for it, but it was best to keep it off the floor. The pipe to the sink leaked, so the floor was always sloshing with grimy water. I’m surprised we didn’t get trench foot.
It took me a month to get through that book. I was working on getting into the library in the meantime, but I was pretty peaceable while I still had a book. Then I got to the end of the book, but not to the end of the story. I mean the pages just stopped, and instead there was a row of jagged stubs where the last ten or so pages ought to be. I don’t get angry very often, but when I do, it’s not pretty.
Mary is a lousy liar. I doubted she had any use for the pages, but she knew who did. I tied her twig-like arms with my tracksuit pants and told her if she tried to scream, I’d stuff my socks all the way down her throat.
It turned out it was Rochelle. She’d been making fat blunts with my pages. Rochelle stood out; she was a traditionally built woman who’d been in here since forever. I couldn’t understand much of what she said. I didn’t know if that was her accent or because her gold teeth were too big for her face—which they were, even if that was just how she talked.
Determined to get my unsmoked pages back, I used my rec time, which is the only time I’m allowed out of that godforsaken cell, and into the godforsaken recreational areas, to hunt her down. Of course, she was in the library. She was in the Nonfiction section in a little den of blankets doling out drugs that she kept, enterprisingly I thought, in her hair. Word was, Rochelle was HIV positive, and if she had a grudge, she’d stick you with something she’d bled on.
Rochelle and I had a discussion, with her mate Larissa as translator. Rochelle was tickled that I couldn’t understand a word she said. I asked why she took my book pages when she had a job in the library. What had seemed designed to provoke turned out to be plain lack of forward planning. Rochelle and Larissa liked to smoke a joint after lights out. ‟Gets you off to sleep, innit,” Larissa explained.
“Yeah,” I said. “I like a spliff before bed too, who doesn’t, but still. Why cannibalize my book?”
‟Got no papers.”
So they ran out of fricking Rizla papers and got Mary to pass pages of my book to them through the bars. Not cool, Mary, not cool at all. She could at least have taken the ones from the beginning. Honestly, fucking smackheads.
They promised to pass me what was left of those last pages that night, hand to hand down the chain through the bars. But first, they wanted something from me.
‟You’re Piggy’s favorite.” Rochelle said, and Larrissa concurred.
‟Yes, she never search you. Never springs a surprise inspection on you, she knows you ain’t got nothin’. You her golden baby. She treats you niiice.”
This was news to me. Piggy was significantly less of a cunt to me because I knew when to keep my mouth shut, didn’t scream abuse at her, and I’d never tried to tap her up for drugs or shank her with an infected blade.
I made a mental note to tell my sister that in prison, getting noticed by management for being the right sort was significantly easier than it had been in banking. This would have been a funny Facebook update, but I didn’t have any social media or media or social life anymore.
That day I made my first mistake, but being a drug dealer in prison was a new job for me. I think it’s fair to say I was a fast learner.
New rule. Never give a meth head meth when you are stuck in a confined space with them for twenty out of twenty-four hours. That went down exactly as you’d expect. I have a lot of earplugs, you need them in prison, the noise is constant, but when someone is on the bunk above yours and constantly talking to themselves about aliens, Jews, bankers, lizardmen—well, it’s fair to say I debated adding a murder to my rap sheet.
I’d filled in a request form to be considered for a job in the library pretty much on my first day. I was starting to suspect that these General Request forms were being filed directly in the bin. I took a leaf out of The Shawshank Redemption, and filled in as many of them as I could every day, many pages of ‟continued on separate sheet,” ‟Page 1 of 6,” and so on. I explained in great detail my experience as a technical writer, talked about how my mental health was deteriorating rapidly without access to books, offered to personally set up a literacy program for other inmates. I knew full well literacy was unheard of and no one gave a shit, so I’d never be called on to actually do anything about it.
I got the library job. Piggy approved it, but more importantly, Rochelle approved it.
And I got my trial at the same time I found out I was doing time for absolutely no goddamn reason at all.
‟Pete’s pressing charges,” Kay said. She couldn’t even look at me through her one good eye. The other one was swollen shut—a kiss with a fist.
After everything. Everything. She’d gone back to him. I wanted to punch her. Pete was right, she was only good for being a fucking punchbag.
I didn’t trust myself to say anything, so I just grunted.
“He wanted me to testify,” she said, “but I said I didn’t see anything.”
So this is why she had a black eye. After she’d run away, left him, spent a month living in a shelter with one change of clothes, got a flat of her own—and what did she do, phoned him up and begged him to come round and beat her up again. Jesus Christ. How many times had I told myself not to get involved, because it didn’t do any good? But I did what I did, and I’d do it again.
Obviously, I wouldn’t say that on the stand.
Once I’d got the hang of Rochelle’s dialect, we got along just fine. She’d say: ‟Hey, what you reading, bookworm?” and I’d tell her the story. Rochelle’s reading was pretty basic, but she could read well enough for kids books, Jacqueline Woodson maybe, that sort of stuff, but the library had none of that.
Even with access to the library, which was a shoddy collection of discarded crap from real libraries, I was getting my sis to bring books in for me. She was my only visitor. I was too embarrassed for my friends to know where I’d gone. I spread a rumor I was going on a writing retreat in South America, and there was no internet.
I got my sister to bring in some kids books. I estimated a reading age of seven, and she did a sterling job. She brought Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which Rochelle loved. She must have read that book five or six times, laughing at the same parts every time. She asked what else she should read. Luckily there was a whole series of these books, so I kept Rochelle sweet with books she liked, and she kept me out of trouble with the other prisoners, ʼtil my days were mostly smoking weed with Rochelle and Larissa in a little blanket shelter behind the library desk.
Larissa wasn’t into fiction. Stories that aren’t true are a waste of time, she said. I saw her point, but what did we have if not time? She liked newspapers and proper magazines, none of that celebrity crap. The Economist, National Geographic, stuff like that. So I asked my sis for some decent nonfiction for Larissa.
Sis was getting it super cheap from the Shad Library book sales, it was fill a bag of books for a quid. It had been a favorite of ours as kids, and they hadn’t accounted for inflation over the last twenty years.
I got ready for the visit, but my name wasn’t called. I told Piggy it was a mistake, and she said without the slightest hint of compassion that it wasn’t. Sis hadn’t come.
All the screws are occupied during visits, making sure visitors aren’t passing drugs to the inmates. Wouldn’t want inmates getting their hands on drugs the screws weren’t profiting off, eh. That meant the rest of us were banged up for the whole afternoon. It was my first time without a visitor, and I realized how fucking awful it was, sitting there alone in your cell with nothing to do while everyone else gets to see their friends and family. Pete had probably stopped her from coming to see me. Maybe he’d hospitalized her, and that’s why she wasn’t here. All these things ran round in my head while I stared up at Mary’s empty bunk. Even Mary had visitors.
I apologized to Rochelle that there weren’t any new books this week. I knew she’d been excited to get a new one. She took note of how utterly miserable I looked. I told her my sister didn’t come, so I didn’t want to go outside at rec time, I just wanted to get really, really stoned. Bless her, Rochelle got me high as fuck behind the library desk and parked me in front of the TV in the rec room where we watched, of all things, Judge Judy.
Rochelle was having a difficult time of things too. She’d heard her brother had just got sent down again, stabbed a guy in the neck.
‟Allegedly?” I asked.
‟No,” she said. ‟He stabbed a guy in the neck at his wedding.”
“It’s okay, all he knows is prison. He likes it there. We run the prison gangs, so you know, he’s well looked after.”
‟Wait, you run the prison gangs?” This was moving too fast for my stoned brain to keep up with.
‟Yeah, don’t worry, you’re with me, you’ll be safe.”
‟What do the prison gangs, er, do?”
‟We get the drugs in, we make money. The screws work for us, so really, they’re the ones being screwed. Can you imagine, if a screw gets caught, they’ll end up in here by us? Very bad for them.” Rochelle laughed so loud it echoed down the hall.
‟You should have gone into business,” I told her.
‟I am in business,” she said, grinning. ‟I am a very rich lady.”
My trial date approached quickly. Kay didn’t show on the next visit either. My lawyer did, though. The trial was happening in a week.
Pete had gone ahead and pressed charges. His injuries were extensive and all documented by the paramedics and the casualty doctors. I could try to plead not guilty, but it would just piss the judge off. The Pete-shaped dent in my Yaris was all the evidence they needed. I wondered if Kay was still insisting she didn’t see anything and if Pete remembered enough to know that she saw the whole thing. If you’re going to hit someone, make sure you knock ’em out, that way they don’t even remember who hit ’em. That was advice from our old dad. He was useful like that when it came to sorting out your grievances, Shad style. Pete must have been unconscious, although a part of me liked to think he’d been fully conscious when I ran the car over him like a speed-bump. The fucker.
I had a plan, but I needed Kay to put her big girl pants on and come and bloody see me. I asked the lawyer to stress to Kay how important it was that she visit me before the trial, that I was very distressed, not knowing if she was okay or not. I hadn’t prayed since I was a kid and they forced us to in primary school, but that night I actually prayed, with Rochelle, that my sister would find a way to visit me without Pete knowing.
I doubt it was my prayer that worked. It was probably Rochelle’s turbo prayers that did the trick, but Kay did come to see me. Pete was back on the scene, I could tell straight away. She was thinner, paler, and even her hair seemed thinner. Pete seemed to rub away at her like she was being erased.
‟I’ve got a friend who’s going to come by and see you,” I said. “Make sure you’re all right.”
She started to protest, but I put my hand up to stop her. “It’s already arranged,” I said. “I want you to be all right, but you’re not, are you?”
It was a rhetorical question, but she shook her head anyway.
I was done pussyfooting around her. If you wanted Kay to do something you had to bully her into it. The trait I hated most about her was exactly what Pete found so irresistible. They were perfect for each other in that way, the bully and the woman who likes to be bullied.
‟How did he find you, Kay? Did you tell him where you were?”
I wanted her to admit it. Admit that I went to prison trying to rescue her, and she runs back to him.
“The shelter got a man and a van to go and pick my stuff up,” she said. “He followed the van and then he turned up. I opened the door, and he pushed his way in. I should’ve screamed or tried to run, but I’ve just moved there, I didn’t want the neighbors calling the police on me.”
‟They wouldn’t have been calling the police on you, though, would they? They’d have been calling the police on him, which would have been good. In fact, why didn’t you call the police on him?”
‟I didn’t know what to do. He says he’ll never let me go and if I try to leave him again, he’ll kill me. I believe him.”
‟Tell me honestly, sis, if there was a way out of this, would you take it?”
Kay nodded, only a slight little nod, but it was there. I demanded that she say it out loud. If I was going all in to rescue her again, I at least wanted her to say it.
‟Yes,” she said.
‟Right then. When’s a good time for my friend to come over for a visit?”
Technically, it was a friend of a friend.
She went over the next day while Pete was at work. He worked as a pizza delivery driver, so he was apt to pop in and check up on Kay throughout the evening. That’s a-okay, though. If he surprised her, he’d find Kay having a cup of tea with Paulina from church, nothing to arouse his suspicions there.
Two days before my trial, poor Pete got picked up for having quite a lot of heroin in the boot of his car. The results of the blood test would take another day to come back, but I knew it would show he was a user. He was already a prolific weed smoker, so swapping out his baggie of weed for one laced with heroin gave him a full house on the blood test.
Rochelle’s got some mad skills. You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but give her a problem, and she’ll cook up a plan that blows your mind. Her brain burns with the wattage of a thousand bulbs. She’d have ended up running the country if she’d grown up in a different neighborhood, but as it was, she pulled the strings on everything going on below decks. And Pete was actually nicer those evenings he’d had a bit of bonus smack, because he’d be dozing instead of kicking off. Kay got a much-needed rest from his relentless needling and paranoia. He got picked up while he was at work. Oh dear, Pete, delivering a lot more than pizzas?
My lawyer is delighted. He looks like that’s the happiest he’s been in about ten thousand years. He came in on an unscheduled visit, beaming like the Buddha himself, to tell me that the Crown Prosecution Service had decided to drop the charges against me. My defense had been that he stood in front of my car, banging it and threatening me (this was true), and I was just trying to get away from him because I was scared (not true), and I thought he’d move out of the way (not true), so when he bounced off the bonnet, I swerved because I was panicked and terrified (pure bullshit), and ran over him by accident (definitely not true, that crunching noise he made under the tires was the most pleasing sound Pete is capable of making). So my defense that he was off his head and being threatening, which was true anyway, is now bulletproof, since he turned out to be a big scary drug dealer who was off his tits on H at the time.
In a reversal of fortune, it’s not up to Kay to press charges for everything he’s done to her, the CPS are prosecuting on her behalf, she doesn’t even have to be in court. A rep from the Women’s Refuge can appear for her, and I’ll certainly be there with a long list of domestic violence I’ve witnessed first and secondhand over the years. It’s a good job Kay won’t be there, because I’ll be grassing on Pete so long they’ll be handing out popcorn in the courtroom.
So I’m out of prison, but still visiting Rochelle and Lisette with new items for their book club, which keeps them happy, and I believe Rochelle’s brother is taking very special care of Pete in Armley, which he’ll be calling home for the next ten to fifteen years.
Rebecca River Forbes is a British-Mauritian fuelled by tea (she travels with a tea library). She writes poems, short stories, and writes and performs stand-up comedy. She recently finished her novel, Shut Mouth, and is hunting for an agent to give her some love. Find her on Twitter @bohobo101.