Foreword: All chapters of Pigeon on the Wing published on this website are in draft form only. The final version may include grammatical, syntax and content changes, as well as sidebars and illustrations to maintain a level of interest and to stop readers’ eyes from glazing over. All comments and / or criticisms of content or writing style would be most welcome. Masterpieces like this don’t just write themselves, you know.
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Pigeon on the Wing – Chapter 8 – Assessment Time
Friday 12th May 2017 – It was now fourteen days since I had been taken from the Inner London Crown Court and transported to HMP Thameside – aka the “Thameside Hilton.” During that time I had been introduced to the rules and regulations of Her Majesty’s Prisons, and I had got to know a considerable number of inmates on my prison wing. The fact that I was interested in chess certainly helped when it came to making friends – men don’t just get together and talk about each others’ feelings in the same way women do – an external mechanism for bonding is essential, and playing chess on a regular basis allows for bonding to take place without all the touchy-feely stuff that most men would run a mile from.
No doubt I will be inundated with letters of criticism from hundreds of men out there who are more in touch with their feminine side than I am – but please feel free to continue to write in, as I have been informed that cheap writing paper, when shredded, makes excellent cat litter for Damian (a very particular and discriminating feline of my acquaintance.) I will have more to say about Damian later as his political opinions are apparently even more forthright than mine. An’ that’s sayin’ summat, as they say in Yorkshire.
In my two weeks behind bars, I had become used to the quirks and vagaries of the prison system to the extent that I was now considered to be an “old lag” – able to dispense solemn advice to some of the new inmates who, surprisingly enough, seemed to materialise out of nowhere every day.
I was able to explain the intricacies of the menu system – whereby prisoners could order their food for the week through a computer system based on fingerprint recognition – and I could show them how to select TV programs through their in-cell entertainment centre.
(I should mention that I was determined to make a concerted effort to stay away from dispensing advice on how to obtain illegal and contraband items. One could get into serious trouble for that, and leaving aside my recently acquired criminal conviction, I was keen to cultivate my image among the other prisoners as an exceptionally law-abiding criminal. Well, perhaps not too law-abiding. In the Thameside Hilton, that could land you in just as much trouble. Suffice it to say that my recipes for extracting the methanol from popular brands of boot-polish via six slices of Warburton’s finest were now proving very popular.)
Eat your heart out, Nigella Lawson.
I use the phrase “entertainment-centre” loosely – the premise for the successful operation of the system was that you required a co-axial lead to connect to the back of the TV in your cell and for it to be set up in such a way that it was able to receive signals from the ether and display them on your TV. The first challenge was that the co-axial leads were in very short supply.
(When I say “in short supply” I mean somewhere on the HMP inmates’ spectrum between gold dust, hens’ teeth and the pubic hair of expectant unicorns.)
I was advised that if I were to acquire such a co-axial lead, then I should keep it secreted about my person, otherwise it would most likely disappear and be squirreled away by one of the other inmates at the first opportunity. Apparently – whisper it quietly! – there were some acquisitive, thieving and downright dishonest persons on our wing.
Shock-horror, I hear you say! Surely not! But yes, there were indeed some inmates who would steal anything that wasn’t nailed down, and that included TV co-axial leads from their fellow prisoners. As an aside, I was to find that it also included electric kettles. (More about that later.)
The second challenge was tuning the TV in. This required the services of an inmate who was in the possession of a remote control unit. In my case, I had to bet on the outcome of a chess game with the appropriate inmate in order to acquire a co-axial cable and to get him to tune my TV in to the available channels. This was relatively easy for me because I was quite good at chess.
I don’t know what sacrifices the other inmates might have had to make to acquire a co-axial lead and the use of a remote control unit, but I’m sure some of them ended up in transactions that might not be considered prim and proper (or even hygienic) by one’s maiden aunt. Anyway, I digress.
Having tuned in the TV, then next challenge was to select a channel to watch. In addition to the standard mainstream TV and satellite channels, there were two prison-operated DVD channels in operation 24 hours a day. You could say this was a mixed blessing. I use that phrase because the only DVDs available during my first two weeks were box sets of “Prison Break.”
Talk about adding insult to injury.
Believe it or not, the last thing you want when faced with a substantial period of incarceration is a DVD box set based on the premise that if you don’t break out of prison using the most violent means available to you then you are likely to die a horrible death at the hands of mobsters and psychopaths. Someone in charge of the DVD media administration at HMP Thameside obviously had a warped sense of humour.
During the first two weeks, there were numerous assessments carried out, mostly by nubile young women who seemed to have been selected for their sexual attractiveness in order to remind inmates of what they were missing. Now I may be mistaken on this last point, because when, as a man, you have been thrown against your will into an all-male environment for any length of time, then any female who is possessed of a pulse and who does not display any outward signs of debilitating illnesses such as leprosy starts to look sexually attractive.
In fact I’m not sure that even leprosy would have put me off after two weeks of enforced celibacy. Although I think I would have to draw the line at the prospect of the object of my desire not having a pulse.
I do have some principles, after all. As the famous comedian Groucho Marx once remarked – “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them – well, I have others.”
I remember my first assessment well. A prison officer poked his head around my cell door one morning and announced that my presence was required outside. Could I possibly make myself respectable and meet my assessor at a table in the communal area outside my cell, if I would be so kind?
As I recall, his actual words were – “Oi, Burton, you’ve got a visitor. Get yer bleedin’ arse out here NOW.” They don’t mince words at HMP Thameside.
I duly obliged and sat down with a buxom brunette who looked as though she was on day release from the Cheltenham Academy for Exceedingly Demure Young Ladies. She had an cultured and refined accent, a face which was the very epitome of health and beauty, and a figure that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Milan catwalk – or at the very least, sprawled lasciviously in a skimpy bikini across the bonnet of my Ferrari – perhaps after I had loaned it out to Jeremy Clarkson for an episode of Top Gear.
I’m joking, of course. I would never loan out my Ferrari to Jeremy Clarkson. Not after he punched that Irish chef for not cooking his steak correctly. I am most definitely not a fan of culinary-related violence.
“So how are they treating you?” she purred. “Can I ask you a few questions? Are you suffering from any ailments? Allergies? Are you addicted to drink, drugs or any form of narcotics? How is your food? Have you any complaints that are not being addressed?”
She ticked off various boxes on a sheet of paper on her clipboard as I gave her my answers. The question about having allergies, I was to find, formed an indispensable part of any questionnaire in the prison system.
Strangely enough, due to my medical history over the previous three or four years, I had found that it formed an indispensable part of any questionnaire within the National Health Service as well. Here is an example:
Doctor: “Well, Mr. Burton, if you could just stop bleeding for a moment, get your epilepsy and heart attack under control, and stop throwing up while we retrieve your severed limbs from the floor of the ambulance, I need to ask you if you have any allergies. Hay fever is particularly prevalent at this time of year, and we wouldn’t want you to suffer unnecessarily.”
Maybe I’m just being oversensitive.
“Now that you mention it, Doctor, it turns out that I’m allergic to complete strangers continually asking me whether I am allergic to anything. I would advise you to stop it now before I grab you round the throat and throttle the life out of you before feeding your twitching carcass to the pigs.”
I have found that such witticisms were generally lost on the Mohammedan members of the medical profession. I have no idea why that might be. The Mohammedan sense of humour is perhaps not exactly the same as mine – which of course could explain why I had landed up here in the first place.
Anyway, the questions from of the Exceedingly Demure Young Lady from the Cheltenham Academy finally came to an end. I was quite sorry to see her go, really. She left me with the promise that she would be back for a further Educational Assessment within the next few days. Great. I couldn’t wait.
Maybe I could inveigle her into smuggling a cake into the prison with a file in it? Or persuade her to take my place in the cell while I dressed up as a washerwoman and made my escape past the unsuspecting prison staff. Unfortunately the aforementioned prison staff seem to be alert to such ruses these days. Whoever would have thought that reading “The Wind in the Willows” was so essential for custodial effectiveness?
Sure enough, after a few days the Exceedingly Demure Young Lady was back, with another series of questions designed to establish my level of educational attainment. Now, having graduated from Wallington County Grammar School in a leafy Surrey suburb some forty-seven years previously – with a diploma for flicking ink-soaked paper pellets from a wooden ruler with a high degree of accuracy over a range of ten metres – I considered myself to be fairly high up on the educational spectrum, at least compared to some of the less fortunate members of the prison population.
“You’ll still have to go for an English Language, Mathematics and Computer Skills assessment next Saturday,” she said, “and it’s important that you do well. HMP Thameside prides itself on making sure that all inmates leave with the requisite skills to enable them to become productive members of society.”
Personally I would have thought that some courses in advanced computer hacking, crypto-currency fraud and loan-sharking techniques would have been more useful to me at my time of life, but I forbore from saying so just in case the powers-that-be had an opportunity to review my comments and to decide that my release in four or five weeks time would be inappropriate.
It’s a funny thing, but being in an environment with people who might well be eligible for Professorships in Advanced Criminality makes one unconscionably competitive, and I resolved to do as well as I could to achieve a respectable result in the forthcoming educational assessment.
The following Saturday I was directed to a classroom with another 15-20 old lags to undergo an English Language, Mathematics and Computer Skills assessment. I took my place in front of a computer terminal. I noticed a sign above the screen that read “Anyone caught stealing a mouse will be punished with the loss of all inmate privileges.” Blimey, I thought, that’s a bit much. What was it about computer mice that would attract such a draconian punishment? I could envisage a possible scenario:
“OK Fingers, now remember we are going to steal 100,000 boxes of high-end computer mice from this warehouse. Ignore the substantial quantities of cocaine, heroin, high-powered military armaments and the squillions of forged 500-euro notes that are lying about unguarded. We might end up doing serious time in the nick if we get caught with that lot.”
“You’re joking, aren’t you boss? If they catch us with those computer mice they’ll throw away the key. Just let us keep the Class A drugs, the rocket-propelled grenades and the forged currency – and we can unload them onto Barry the Baptist at the Sutton Coldfield Sunday Market Stall without any risk and no questions asked.”
(Barry the Baptist was a familiar figure in the Sutton Coldfield underworld. Like his namesake in the film “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”, his specialist subject was half-drowning recalcitrant debtors by holding their heads underwater until they paid up.)
In the event, my fears were unfounded. The English Language, Mathematics and Computer Skills assessment proved to be a doddle. I suppose being an IT consultant for the previous thirty years might have helped matters, as would having English as my native language and the ability to total up an invoice in my head and calculate the result while subtracting a discount and adding VAT. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so smug about it. There were a lot of people on the wing who didn’t have the first idea about such matters.
“You’ve passed.” the assessment supervisor informed me. “Not only that, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen anyone in here scoring Level 3 (the highest level) in English Language, Mathematics and Computer Skills. You’re obviously destined for great things.”
I detected a certain amount of cynicism in his voice. Hardly surprising, I suppose, given that I was ostensibly in HMP Thameside as a serial pigeon killer. Opportunities for career advancement in that field were limited, to say the least.
“Great things” might just mean making it to the end of my sentence without being brutally murdered by any number of inmates who might secretly be lifelong members of the internationally feared assassination department of the notorious RSPB.
I needn’t have worried. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds doesn’t take any prisoners.
End of Chapter 8
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