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.
Seriously, though – this is your book just as much as it is mine. I couldn’t have even begun to write it without all of your help and support. Thank you so much for everything you have done for me, and I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I have enjoyed writing it.
Pigeon on the Wing – Chapter 5 – Upstart Pigeon
I was woken by the soft yet persistent buzzing of the alarm on my digital wrist-watch. This was the one electronic item that had been returned to me from my initial registration into the prison system. It had presumably been designated as a harmless item, and not for the first time, I wished that I had paid more attention to the James Bond and Jason Bourne films of my youth, where wrist-watches could be magically transformed into elaborate killing devices with such accessories as cheese-wires for strangling prison guards, wire saws for cutting through prison bars, and (my favourite) a wrist-watch filled with explosives designed to demolish a prison door and facilitate my escape to freedom.
Knowing my luck, I would probably have just blown my arms and legs off.
It was 6:30 a.m. and for a moment I was disoriented by various unfamiliar sounds and sensations. I tried to reconcile the sounds and sensations with the environment I would normally awaken to – and then I realised where I was, and my heart plummeted into my boots.
Or at least, my anticipation was that it was where my heart would have plummeted, had I had not taken the precaution of removing my footwear the previous evening before retiring to the uppermost bunk in the cell. As it was, my heart plummeted to a spot just below my ankles, whereupon it rebounded like a bungee jumper on steroids and positioned itself just above my calves, from where it proceeded to hang on to my kneecaps for dear life.
This sensation was not entirely agreeable to me, and so I stretched out my body in an attempt to return my heart to its previous location, an activity that made me realise that my previous assessment of the hardness of the prison mattress the night before was pretty much as accurate as could be. The mattress had obviously been created by a sociopathic furniture designer with the intention of bringing home to the most recalcitrant old lag the fact that his previous life of luxury was destined to be but a distant memory.
Every bone that I could identify in my body ached as though I had just gone through ten rounds with Mike Tyson, perhaps on a day when he had been disrespected in the ring and was consequently feeling particularly well-disposed to the notion that his opponent would deserve to be beaten to a pulp. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that this sensation applied to bones that I hadn’t even been aware of during my previous sixty-four years. I made a mental note to adjust the Trip Advisor rating for my stay at HMP Thameside – downwards, at least for the time being.
Trip Advisor representative – “So, Mr Burton, how did you enjoy your first night at the five-star HMP Thameside establishment?”
Me – “Fine, thank you. It was very enjoyable. No problems at all.” (I am British, after all, and we British enjoy nothing more than displaying stoicism and understated irony in the face of adversity, a characteristic that is not always fully appreciated by those of lesser cultures.)
Sunshine streamed through the curtain-less window, and from my bunk I could see planes coming in to land at London City Airport, less than a mile away from where I was incarcerated. I thought of all those carefree passengers, returning from their holidays in Tenerife and Fuerteventura, clutching their straw donkeys and their bottles of duty-free tequila, never giving a thought to what it must be like to having their liberty taken away from them.
The soft sound of snoring emanated from the bottom bunk. John was evidently a sounder sleeper than I was, and I wasn’t about to disturb him if I could possibly help it. Nevertheless, I was determined to set up some kind of a routine for the duration of my stay at HMP Thameside, and I clambered down from the top bunk and made my way to the en-suite partition, armed with my bag of toiletries.
The en-suite consisted of a shower head set into the ceiling, with metal buttons set into the wall to switch it on and off. There was what looked like to be a cast-concrete toilet set into a corner of the cell, and an equally resilient sink with metal buttons in place of taps. (I was later to find out that prison cells did originally have standard taps with rotating handles, but that these could ingeniously be utilised as hand-cuff removing devices. The ingenuity of prisoners knows no bounds.)
I activated the shower and spent the next ten minutes luxuriating under a torrent of acceptably warm water (I dare say the appropriate Health and Safety professionals had determined what was to be considered too hot or too cold for the average prisoner, as there was no temperature adjustment device in sight) and then towelled myself off and dressed myself in my prison greens, which I was to wear for most of the next six weeks. I might not be the most sartorially dressed prisoner on the wing, but I hoped I would at least blend in with the others.
(After the first two weeks on the wing, prisoners are permitted to wear their own clothes, but as my only other set of clothes comprised my dark blue suit – with which I had been hoping to impress the judge – I thought that my set of prison greens would probably be a better choice. So prison greens it was, and prison greens it remained for the duration of my stay.)
John stirred on the lower bunk. “They’ll most likely be unlocking the cell at 08:00,” he said. “Or 7:45 for meds. Have you got any meds you ought to be taking?”
As it happened, I did have some medication to take, first thing in the morning, every morning, and last thing at night, every night. This was all part and parcel of having had a history of serious heart problems over the previous three years. Part of the induction process the previous day had involved removing and impounding my medication (I had brought several days’ supply with me) but I had been assured that it would be dispensed each day in line with my medical requirements, and so it proved to be the case.
I couldn’t fault the procedure. The cell was unlocked at 7:45 am precisely, and there was a stentorian shout from one of the prison officers – “Meds!” Those of us who were on medication wandered out of our cells like apathetic greyhounds released from their traps, on a day when the artificial rabbit on the rail had seized up due to lack of maintenance. We ambled our way up to the locked and barred door that led from the wing to the Wing Dispensary. From there we were required to queue up in a more or less orderly fashion to be admitted one by one by a prison officer to the “medication hatch” which was via a barred window to the dispensary.
The majority of the dispensary staff were female, and this, I subsequently discovered, allowed for some outrageous flirting on behalf of the prisoners – an activity which, if not actually encouraged, was far from being discouraged by the prison officers, presumably with the view in mind that a bit of harmless sexual harassment diminished the possibility of prison riots from disgruntled inmates. The #MeToo movement obviously hadn’t made its way as far as HMP Thameside.
“’Allo darlin’,” would be the standard greeting. “Wot ‘ave you got for me today? ‘Ow about you and me getting together when you knock off after work?” To be fair, the female dispensary staff were mostly made of stern stuff, and their responses would range from the placatory “Now, now,” to the standard “Behave yourself,” to the more eloquent “How would you like me to kick you in the nuts?”
Naturally, I was far above such uncouth behaviour, and I contented myself with giving my name, rank and number as I handed over my precious identity card – “Burton – Timothy M – Wing A, Cell No. A-17.” The pharmacist consulted a computer screen, gave the command to one of the other assistants to complete the order, and after a little while, a small paper cup containing one’s medication slid through the hatch, together with another small paper cup containing a couple of mouthfuls of water. One was expected to swallow the meds in front of the pharmacist. I suppose the last thing they would have wanted was for some prisoner to store up a couple of hundred Paracetamol tablets and then take them all at once. Just think of the paperwork that would entail.
After the early morning dispensation of meds, each prisoner was allowed back down onto the wing to collect their breakfast (and for this, one relied upon the goodwill of one’s cellmate, as by the time the dispensation of meds was concluded, the time for collecting one’s breakfast was usually long past.)
I was given a small packet of Rice Krispies and a carton of milk by John.
As we returned to our cell, I said “Is that it, then? Rice Krispies? I bloody hate Rice Krispies.”
“You should be able to get something more to your liking over the next few days,” said John. “Here’s some muesli and a couple of oranges to keep you going.” He reached into his cell cupboard and retrieved several items from what looked to be like a box filled with a suspiciously large stash of pre-packed breakfast paraphernalia.
I tucked in with relish. It might not have been breakfast at the Ritz, but it was most welcome. I resisted the temptation to enquire about the possibility of being allocated a couple of hot bacon sandwiches, perhaps on lightly toasted bread with brown sauce. No point pushing your luck at this early stage in the proceedings, I thought.
The cell remained unlocked for the next couple of hours, and I ventured out of the cell onto the prison wing in order to discover what pleasures might lay in store for me. I was more than a little nervous, not knowing how I might be treated by the other prisoners, but I was to find that the prevailing atmosphere was one of benign indifference, for which I was very grateful.
I was still concerned with whether I might be recognised as a notorious Islamophobe (the Independent newspaper and the Daily Mail had splashed photographs of me all over their pages during the previous month) and I had no desire to be fending off unwelcome questions at this stage.
This section of the wing was divided into two levels – “A-upper” and “A-lower”, and there were around thirty cells on each level. A flight of stairs connected the two levels, and several prisoners seemed to be engaged in constructive employment, some cleaning the communal areas with mops and buckets, and others armed with brooms nonchalantly sweeping out the cells.
There was also a wing laundry, where one could entrust one’s prison greens to one of two enormous washing machines, although I was to find out that this was not recommended unless absolutely necessary, due to the propensity for the machines to disgorge items that had been presented for washing approximately two sizes smaller than when they went in.
There were a couple of pool tables on each level, and these were in constant use whenever the cell doors were unlocked and prisoners were given “association time” which amounted to around six hours per day in total. The rest of the time, we were locked up in our respective cells and left to our own devices.
For me though, the main source of gratification lay in the half-dozen or so chess-boards that were distributed on the various tables in the association area on the wing. I have always loved chess from as far back as I remember. One of my earliest memories was of playing with an ivory chess-set that one of my great-uncles had brought back decades previously from the Far East – intricately carved, and polished with age, it seemed to speak of a long-dead civilisation, long-forgotten in the mists of time, imbued with knowledge and wisdom that we have now for the most part lost.
Memories of that ivory chess-set inspired me to join the chess club at my secondary school, and it became my hobby of choice when many of my contemporaries at that time looked down upon such intellectual pursuits, preferring instead to participate in football, rugby and cricket. They would endlessly discuss tactics, strategy and the achievements of prominent footballers, rugby players and cricketers, at a time where such people had not yet become the celebrities that they are today.
I didn’t have any sense of alienation or any negative feelings about this, as I very quickly found out that I was completely rubbish at anything that involved accurate hand-to-eye co-ordination. I was always the last person to be picked for a football, rugby or cricket game – “Oh, no, we’ve ended up with Burton again!” was a phrase I was soon to get used to – and I resigned myself to finding other areas where I might display my undoubted expertise. I knew I had some expertise tucked away somewhere, it was just a question of finding out where it was. At least, that is what I told myself.
Strangely enough, during my last ever game of rugby at my school, when I was about fifteen years old, I found myself among a bunch of other similarly weedy players who had very similar expertise (or lack of it) in the realms of hand-to-eye co-ordination. I don’t know whether it was their sheer ineptitude that spurred me on, but I found myself scoring all eight of the tries that occurred during the game, and this inexplicably included five successful conversions which resulted in a final score of 34-0. I remember feeling on top of the world about that, and I remember contemplating my future as a famous rugby player – “The Captain of the Weeds” as my younger daughter pithily observed when I regaled her years later with the story – unfortunately though, from that day to this I haven’t been able to kick a ball straight if my life were to depend on it.
This was because the day following this momentous game of rugby, I was involved in a serious road accident, caused by my recklessly cycling across a busy road junction. I had been hastily trying to make up time on my newspaper delivery round and neglected to observe the relevant road signs, thereby colliding with a yellow Mini in the process. I distinctly remember the colour and make of the car as I somersaulted over the roof and landed in a somewhat ungainly manner in the road behind the car. I don’t suppose the driver of the Mini remembered much about the colour of my bike. She was apparently too busy having a fit of the vapours, perhaps unsurprisingly under the circumstances.
I thought that maybe my guardian angel was having a day off. I know I shouldn’t be so cynical, as I was lucky not to have been killed. The incident did however leave me with several broken bones, some of which never healed correctly, and I never played rugby again. That’s what you get for being hubristic. They do say that Nemesis comes after Hubris. They also say that karma’s a bitch.
So, chess it was. I sat down at a table next to one of the chess-boards that was in use, and studied the tactics of the players, who were two young men who looked to be of Afro-Caribbean origin. After a few moments, I could see that they were both making elementary mistakes, and I felt emboldened enough to say – “Any chance I could play the winner?”
They both turned to look at me, and regarded me with cursory interest. “All right, grand-dad,” said one of them. He turned to his opponent. “This place is turning into an old people’s home, innit.”
“Old people’s home? Bleeding graveyard more like!” said the other, eyeing me up and down. “House of the living dead!” They both leaned back and chuckled at each other good-humouredly at their own combined quick wit and ready repartee.
“Right,” I thought. “Challenge. I’ll bloody well show you what the older generation can achieve when they put their minds to it.”
I won the first game, and the next. I played several games of chess that morning, and as I started to win game after game, more and more inmates came up to watch what was going on. There is nothing like successfully playing to win in a competitive sport for restoring morale, and by the time the call came from the prison officers around 11:30 – “Lunch!” I was starting to feel quite chipper.
I queued up at the wing canteen to receive a default lunchtime allocation of chilli con carne and rice, an apple and a carton of orange juice. I hadn’t yet worked out how the system operated – there was in fact a method for prisoners to select items from a menu on the in-cell computer, but the default meal allocation was to ensure that inmates didn’t die of starvation whilst trying to figure out how the system worked.
I was to find out that the computer terminal in each cell played an integral part in the routine that determined how a prisoner spent his time, what food he could eat, and what activities he could sign up for. The computer terminal could recognise one’s identity card via a card reader, combined with a fingerprint via a fingerprint reader, and from there one could access the prison intranet with its impressive range of services. I was to find that we couldn’t actually get onto the World Wide Web, either to send or receive emails, or watch video clips of cute little kittens. This made me realise that it was going to be a very tough stretch indeed, and that I had better prepare myself mentally for the inevitable withdrawal symptoms of technological cold turkey.
There were various menu options on the computer for registering with the prison library, the gym, religious services and other activities such as art classes, language classes and IT technology courses. I was interested to see that in order to sign up for religious services, one had to declare one’s religion, and that could not then be changed for the duration of one’s stay. I felt that this was unduly restrictive. What if I wanted to try out being a Buddhist for a week? Or perhaps a Hindu? Or better still; sign up during the week as a Muslim for the extra privileges of halal chicken meals, the Mecca-facing toilets and the Friday afternoons out of your cell for the Jumu’ah prayer, before switching back to Christianity for a Sunday morning sing-along with a happy-clappy Gospel choir?
As you may by now be able to determine, I take my religious duties and responsibilities somewhat less seriously than perhaps I ought. It could be argued that this played no small part in the situation in which I now found myself.
With lunchtime over, it was time for us all to be locked into our cells for the midday roll call, whereby each cell was inspected to make sure the requisite numbers of prisoners were contained therein. As each inspection hatch was opened, one officer would look in and call “One!” or “Two!” as a second officer wrote the details on a clipboard with a dilapidated, chewed-up Biro.
How twentieth century, I thought, living as we do in an era of electronic sensors and recording devices. I made a mental note to suggest to the prison administration (via the suggestion box on the landing) that bar-codes be tattooed onto prisoners’ foreheads for speed and convenience.
Then again, maybe not. The Howard League for Penal Reform might have something to say about that. The concept of the Mark of the Beast might be acceptable in the Book of Revelation, but HLPR would no doubt view it as a gross infringement of prisoners’ rights. Still, you can’t stop progress, and if such a thing were ever to come to pass, remember you read it here first.
I took the opportunity to read through a pamphlet which had been stuffed into my bag of toiletries the previous evening. This pamphlet had been written by the management of HMP Thameside as a guide for inmates towards what was considered acceptable behaviour, and what was not. I started to read through it.
My cell-mate, John, was engrossed in the paperback novel that I had seen when I had entered the cell for the first time during the previous evening. “What’s that you’re reading, John?” I asked. It looked like a well-thumbed and oft-read piece of writing, judging from the condition of the book. The front cover was missing, and I couldn’t make out the title.
“De Profundis,” he replied, “It’s by some geezer called Oscar Wilde. It was in the cell when I got here. It’s a bit depressing, but at least it’s better than that HMP Thameside instruction manual. That makes you want to slit your wrists. It’s like – do all this stuff and don’t do all that stuff.”
I had read “De Profundis” in my teens. “You find it depressing? I’m not surprised,” I said. It had been written by Oscar Wilde while he was imprisoned in Reading Gaol in 1897, and was an account of the anguish he felt at having been jailed as an unintended consequence of attempting to call out a prominent member of the British establishment. Just the thing you want to read when you’re coming to terms with a substantial period of unjust incarceration for something not too dissimilar.
“Look on the bright side,” I said. “At least the HMP Thameside instruction manual contains enough risible material to support any number of pedants specialising in grammatical inaccuracies as a basis for their stand-up comedy routine. Look at this, for example,” – and I pointed at a section on the first page of the pamphlet with the following enlightening instruction –
PRISONER’S MUST KEEP THEY’RE CELLS CLEAN AND TIDY.
“What’s wrong with that?” said John.
“What’s wrong with it?” I said. “What’s wrong with it? It’s a grammatical nightmare, that’s what. Whoever penned that deserves at least twelve month’s hard labour, preferably down a freezing cold Siberian salt mine with nothing to eat but starvation rations and supervised by a psychopathic prison guard armed with a sixty thousand volt cattle prod.”
John seemed amused at my apparent indignation. “Seems a little harsh to me,” he said. He turned back to his book and left me to study the in-cell computer system instructions in the pamphlet.
End of Chapter 5
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