Monday, 11 April 2016

56 Days

It was Thursday morning. I glanced at my alarm clock, 09:45, and I was still in bed. I had an appointment with my doctor at 10:20 but was waiting for the last possible moment to get out of bed. Despite not working for over a month I had maintained the routine of waking up at 07:00 each day, just as I had for pretty much every day of the last fifteen years. Today however, I allowed myself a lay-in.

The previous two and half years had unquestionably been the worst period of my life, but for the first time in recent memory my waking emotions of anxiety, depression and fear were replaced with enthusiasm, optimism and hope.

Three days earlier, I had attended a Family Court hearing - the seventh such court appearance in the previous two years. The best outcome I could've hoped for was for contact with my children to continue as it was. The worst outcome didn't bear thinking about. In the days leading up to the hearing I was acutely aware that both outcomes were possible and by the time it began I was an anxious mess. I remember looking across the court at Lucia, searching her face for a hint of remorse but there was nothing, she didn't even look at me once. This was now the seventh time she had tried to stop contact between our children and I and I still didn't know why. Deeper in to my chair I sank as the prosecution presented their case to the judge. My character, my mental health and my capability to parent were all called in to question and a string of false allegations were invented to back up their damning assessment.

Thankfully, after an hour or so of deliberation, the judge returned a favourable verdict, ruling that the allegations had no substance and that contact could continue. My children could continue to stay with me each weekend until the final family court hearing in early January next year. As a bonus the judge also ruled that we could spend Christmas together too, it would be our first in three years.

Two days earlier had brought good news in the post with the award of compensation for a mis-sold PPI. A forgotten application made a year before had unexpectedly bore fruit and the timing of it couldn't have been better. Despite a reasonably good job and a healthy salary my financial position had deteriorated hugely in the previous three years. The cost of living alone was a shock to the system, as were the child maintenance payments of almost £500 a month. I worked my office job all week and spent the weekends as a single parent of two, all the time knowing that Lucia was trying to stop contact anyway she could.

My children never wanted for anything, but the impact on me was pronounced. I lost two stone in weight, thanks in equal measures to austerity and loss of appetite. With no new clothes and no nights out with friends in so long I was becoming a shabby recluse. My car and TV were sold and my satellite TV and mobile phone contracts relinquished. In the space of three years I'd spiralled from an affluent and successful father of two, to a depressed and downbeat single parent wallowing well below the poverty line. This unexpected windfall could instantly clear me of my burden of debt, with plenty remaining to treat my children and myself to something nice.

Yesterday had been a productive day too. Energised by my good fortune I'd felt ready to take on the world, completing all the admin tasks I'd been putting off for so long. It felt like the nightmare was finally coming to an end. I could be back at work within a week and by the new year my 'normal' life could resume.

---------------

A thud at the window and a deep booming voice shook me from my joyful introspection..

"Julian?... Julian?... Could you open up please?"

I sprang from my bed to the intercom in the hall. As I peered at the screen two policemen stared back. My heart rate quickened and my mouth went dry. My last encounter with the police had not been a good one. It had started in a similar fashion to this and had ended with my arrest, followed by eighteen torturous hours of solitary confinement. Despite being released relatively unscathed on that occasion, it shook me considerably. Ever since then the merest sight of a policeman or peel of a siren conjured up harrowing flashbacks of the events of that day. Now they were here again and they looked like they meant business. My instinct said run but my body ignored. Then the same booming voice shattered the strained silence.

"Julian? Open up. We know you're in there."

I pushed the button on the intercom. A magnetic clunk and the trudge of heavy boots marked their entrance to the block. By the time I reached the door they were behind it, standing poised. I took a deep breath, reached for the handle and tentatively pulled.

Seizing the initiative I mouthed a hello, but the voice I emitted sounded nothing like mine.

"Hello" the taller of the two policeman said assertively in response.

"Julian Smith I presume?"

I searched for my voice, fearful what the consequences of confirming my identity might be. When I did find it, it was barely audible, a hesitant verbal fart.

"Yes...yes...I'm J-J-Julian." I reluctantly confirmed.

"You're not here to arrest me again are you?" I nervously half-joked, but neither of them smiled back. They exchanged a knowing glance and the taller of the two continued.

"Yes Julian, I'm afraid that's the most likely outcome here, but first could we come in for a chat?"

My head span and my heart sank. My mind raced and gut-wrenching dread tied my stomach in knots.

"What for?" I stammered.

This time the shorter policeman spoke and with an ominously authoritative tone,

"We have reason to believe that on Monday September the 29th 2014, you, Julian Smith, interacted with your former partner, Miss Lucia Valaskova, and in so doing, breached the non-contact order in place between the two of you."

I hastily cast my mind back to Monday, just three days before, striving to remember where I'd been. But Monday was easy, I'd been in court all day and so had Lucia. There must be some sort of mistake.

"That's impossible" I said, my voice strengthening as the prospect of this just being a misunderstanding suddenly looked possible.

The short policeman turned and consulted his clipboard. Sensing a reprieve, I continued, recounting the incident a month before which had since been resolved. The tall policeman's demeanour now changed, he looked less certain than before. We stood in awkward silence for a moment waiting for the short policeman's research to conclude. I could sense a positive ending, but within seconds that was sensationally stamped out.

He corrected himself and fleshed out the charge. It wasn't on the 29th after all, nor was it the incident I'd just recounted moments earlier. This charge related to an alleged incident which had occurred on the previous Friday, the 26th. As he continued I realised I remembered the incident in question, yet it hadn't happened anything like the way it was being described. In this alternative version I was portrayed as the villain and large parts of what he said was simply untrue. But before I could protest my innocence, my rights had been read. I froze, staring with incredulity at my uniformed harbinger of doom, hoping what he'd just said was somehow a mistake.

Recalling my previous arrest and resigned to my fate I asked if I could get dressed properly and collect a few of my things. Under supervision I threw on the first clothes to hand, picked up my house key, my wallet and my phone. I thought back to the compensation recently paid in to my account, still untouched, and now tantalisingly out of reach. My wallet was empty so I grabbed a handful of pound coins from the jar on the fridge. Five pounds: enough for a bus home when I'm released in a few hours I said to myself.

I was spared the indignity of handcuffs as I'd presented myself with no resistance, a small consolation but one I was grateful for as inquisitive neighbours watched the two policemen escort me to the car. I was thankful when the door closed and I could escape their prying eyes. As the car pulled away I looked back at my home and tried to stay calm. It will be OK - I told myself - just answer a few questions and you'll be home again soon.

Most of the way to the police station I gazed vacantly out of the window as the rest of the world continued, disinterested in my plight. My thoughts turned to my children and my stomach churned. I wanted to hug them now more than ever. They were due to be at my flat that evening and I had to be back for that.

Twenty minutes later and our journey was complete. I was escorted from the police car to the same holding cell I'd graced just a month or so earlier. It was a place I'd hoped to never see again, yet here I was again. Less than half an hour earlier the outlook had been bright, but now I was under arrest for second time in a month and this time it was for an something I hadn't even done.

I was all too aware of the process to follow and like a passenger, I vacantly cooperated as my rights were read again, I was relieved of the possessions I had taken care not to leave behind, then searched to ensure I was weapon and drug free. When arrested before I'd made the mistake of not requesting a solicitor, naively believing the truth alone would suffice. I wasn't going to make the same mistake again and with a solicitor summoned I asked if I could also make one further call. I tried to call Alison, a close friend from work, but after a dozen or so rings her voice mail clicked in. I can scarcely recall the contents of the message I left. Little did I know at the time, but that would be the last call I would make for a considerable time.

-----------------

The holding cell was rectangular in shape, with a raised bed-shaped platform on one side and an alcove with a toilet in the corner. The grey, naked walls were bare and windowless, the only illumination was from above where sixteen cubes of thickened glass allowed a few faint rays of light to penetrate. As the cell door slammed shut behind me I prepared myself for what I knew might be a long wait. It was probably about eleven o'clock but with my phone confiscated I couldn't be sure.

The cell's only furnishing was a two inch thick, pillow-sized mat, made of the same fabric used for yoga or gymnastics mats at school. I propped it against the wall, sat down and brought my knees up to my chest. For about an hour I sat poised, anticipating the door opening at any moment, but each time the jangle of keys approached my cell, they departed again and silence returned.

Hours passed. I paced back and forth, then sat back down, then repeated the process a hundred times.  Still nothing. The poise and adrenaline gave way to doubt and despair, and by the time the cell door finally opened I was in the fetal position, punch drunk and beaten.

In a daze, I was frog-marched through to reception. A glimpse of a clock showed - 15:37 - signalling that almost six hours had already passed since my arrest.

I entered the interview room to find a neatly dressed man in his forties sat behind a desk reading from a file of papers before him. He looked up at over his glasses and with a motion of the palm ushered me to sit down.

"Hi, I'm Simon Osbourne and I'm going to try and get you home."

_______

Calmly and methodically, Simon explained the process to follow. He'd clearly done this a million times before. I would be interviewed shortly, then, when the investigation was complete, my file would be sent to the Crown Prosecution Service - to determine if I would be charged or not. As this was potentially a second offence there was a risk that my 'bad character' might count against me. Simon detailed the charge against me and the possible sentence it carried. If charged, I could plea either 'guilty' or 'not guilty', but either plea could lead to a custodial sentence if I was subsequently found guilty of the charge.

There were mitigating circumstances to the breach which had led to my arrest a month earlier. Circumstances acknowledged by the judge in his closing statement and verdict. On that occasion my offence was to send Lucia a text message, whereas the order between us stated that our only communication must be by email. It was a technicality, but technically it was still a breach. I'd only used my mobile because I had no access to the internet, irregardless, I was found guilty. If I was found guilty of breaking the same order again the custodial sentence could be anything up to five years.

For the previous six hours I'd replayed the incident over and over in my head and when Simon asked I was able to provide him with a comprehensive and detailed summary of events. I could see that Simon was suitably impressed as I drew to a close. It felt like my oratory had proven my innocence. Simon believed me and that was the first step. He was cautiously optimistic though. With no material evidence for the court to draw on, it was essentially my word versus Lucia's.

Simon advised that the best course of action was to simply to tell the truth, in precisely the same way I had to him. If I was asked about anything other than the incident in question I should respond with 'no comment'. We ended our conversation and a police officer returned. I was taken back to my cell and told that I'd be called for in a few minutes. This time a few minutes was just a few minutes.

Again I was led to the same interview room. I didn't glance at the clock in reception this time, it was of no concern to me. My imminent interview and the desire to go home were the only things on my mind now. Simon was still sitting where he'd been sitting shortly before, but now across the desk from him were two female police officers. On the desk was an audio cassette player the likes of which would have looked more at home recording the Top 40, than an interview with potentially life-changing consequences and such magnitude.

After a brief introduction the record-play button was pushed and the questioning commenced. I responded to softly spoken officer honestly, confidently and comprehensively, just as I had with Simon. When my version of events had been heard the officer who had been silent up until that point spoke for the first time.

"Does it make you feel more of a man when you hit women Julian?"

I glanced at Simon who closed his eyes and shook his head.

"No comment", I said.

Soon after the interview ended. If it had been an interview for a job I would have been confident. The officers left the room, leaving me and Simon alone.

"You did well there Julian, well done," he said, as genuinely as he could.

"Thanks," I said, "Do you think they will let me go now?"

"We'll just have to see," he said with an uneasy smile and pressed the buzzer to summon the officer.

"Good luck Julian, hopefully I'll see you again soon,"

Moments later the officer returned and I was led back to my cell.

Again the door slammed shut behind me. How long would it be this time? The police needed to assess my interview then decide whether to charge me or not. It was probably about five, if I was released soon I could be home in time for the children at six. On the other hand, if I was charged I might not see them for over a week. The uncertainty was agonising.

Time passed but still no one came. The thick glass bricks revealed that it was now dark outside. Why was it taking so long and was that a good sign or bad? When the cell door finally opened an officer led me from my cell back to reception. The clock on the wall now showed 20:31. Another three hours had passed.

Once in reception things happened in a flash. Before I had time to compose myself I was told that I had been charged on two counts and I would stand trial the following day at the Magistrates Court. Not only that, but I would be held in police custody in the meantime to ensure I couldn't contact the witness - Lucia. The officer's words hung in the air as my astonishment quickly turned to horror. I pleaded for the decision to be reconsidered, I had no intention of contacting Lucia, I just wanted to go home and be with my children. My plea was flatly refused. I asked the officer if I could make a phone call - to let someone know where I was.

"No. No contact with anyone." he said with a confirming shake of the head. And this time when the door slammed shut I knew it was for the night.

Inside again. I wrapped myself in a coarse grey blanket which had been left in my absence and sat for a moment, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Gradually the adrenaline subsided and tiredness took a hold. I don't remember falling asleep, or how long I had been asleep for, when all of a sudden, two sharp clunks woke me in an instant. The door swung open and the cell flooded with light. I could see a figure in the doorway but without my glasses could see no more.

"Smithy?!" inquired the figure, with a familiarity which took me by surprise.

"What on earth are you doing here?"

I scrambled for my glasses trying to place the voice, unsure if I might still be dreaming. The silhouetted figure took a couple of steps towards me and his features began to take shape. My glasses on, I sat up and focused on the policeman who was now sitting beside me. I could see his features clearly now and it was a face that I recognised.

"Buster?", I said, with a disbelieving inflection.

"Surely it cant be?".

Buster, or Martin as he was formally known, was a friend from my childhood. We played in the same football team for several years as teenagers and had always gotten on well. We embraced, and for a few fleeting moments the setting and our respective roles within it became irrelevant. I felt safe.

It transpired that he was now a Chief Constable in the county and was doing a night shift at this station as a favour for a friend. In turn I detailed the sequence of events which had led to my detention that day, with Buster tutting sympathetically and shaking his head throughout.

"You must be starving?" asked Buster.

It was the first time in ages I'd even considered my appetite.

"Yeah I am", I confirmed.

Buster told me to wait a moment and that he'd be back. Sure enough less than two minutes later he returned with a pot noodle, a cereal bar, a cup of tea and a triumphant grin. I munched and gulped as our conversation flowed, belying our roles of prisoner and captor. We reminisced about old times and how our lives had changed since. He and I had both become fathers and took delight in sharing stories about our children.

After fifteen minutes or so it was time for Buster to leave. We said our goodbyes, shook hands and this time when the cell door slammed shut it did so with slightly less menace. It was about 4 am now and with a full belly it wasn't long until I fell asleep.

I awoke as the first flickers of watery light struggled through the thick glass ceiling. Outside I could hear activity and the jangling of keys. About 7 am I thought, the time I usually woke up. I knew the court's first hearing was at ten, my trial could be at any time from then onward dependant on how many other people were to be tried, and where I would fall in the queue. There were still a few hours to wait at least but I was awake now. With the trial now within touching distance there was chance of me returning to sleep. Not too much longer to wait now I reassured myself.

The next few hours felt like years. I rehearsed the trial in my head and tried to imagine what the verdict might be. The rationalist in me was certain my innocence would prevail, but the realist in me wasn't so sure. A continuous cycle of fear and reassurance repeated with neither side able to strike the killer blow. The reality was - I had no idea - and second guessing the outcome was driving me insane.

More muffled voices and keys, but still none of them for me. The morning passed and the light filtering in to the cell suggested it was now early afternoon. What was taking so long? Was there a problem? Had they forgotten about me? My suspense was finally shattered by the familiar clunking of sliding bolts and the opening of the cell door.

"The court is ready for you now" said the officer, securing my hands into a pair of cuffs. I scanned his face, searching for any clues about my impending fate. There was nothing. Silently, he led me from my cell to a waiting area adjacent to the main court room. In the waiting area sat a member of the Crown Prosecution Service, to whom my detention would now pass.

The CPS officer's arms were heavy with tattoos and his immaculate goatee had clearly taken quite a while to craft. He pursed his lips and forced an awkward smile as he removed one of my handcuffs and placed it on to his wrist.

"You'll be going in at any second mate" he said with a familiarity that seemed rather out of place. We weren't mates but in my current position I needed all the support I could get. My mind was all over the place and I was scared.

"Cool" I said with plastic smile, taking some comfort in the fact that whatever my fate, at least I would know it soon.

Moments later I was led in to the same courtroom I'd been in several weeks earlier. He unlocked my handcuffs and sat me behind a perspex screen which separated me and him from the rest of the court room. On the far side sat the prosecuting solicitor, on the near side: my defence. Behind them were several other people, presumably people in training I thought. Three empty seats stood proud on a raised platform to my right, whilst to my left, at the back of the court, a large ornate wooden door. As I focused on the door it slowly opened to reveal three officious looking women in their late 50's or 60's. Everyone in the room stood as the they regally walked through the court to take their seats at the front. Once in place a silent nod indicated that we could all be seated.

I was asked to stand and step forward to the microphone set in the perspex screen, to confirm my name, my address and my date of birth. Shakily I complied with a couple of barely audible verbal nods before retiring to my seat to stew.

The prosecution read out the charges and painted the picture of a monster. In their words I was violent and dangerous criminal - a danger to women and children and probably myself too. This latest incident proved that I had no record for the law and Lucia was understandably terrified of me. They recommended I be charged and detained, to protect the victim and to learn the errors of my ways. Their convincing charade was easily believable. I didn't dare guess what the judge must be thinking.

Next came the turn of the defence and my solicitor rose. For ten minutes he addressed the court with a reassuring calmness which inspired hope. He countered that other than the mistake I'd made a month earlier I'd lived my life as a law-abiding citizen. He spoke of my love for my children, and the fact that I had worked for the same company for the last fifteen years. Crucially, he advised that CCTV footage was available which would prove my innocence completely.

It made sense and the Judge agreed. The trial should be adjourned until the footage is viewed and as she consulted the Court clerk for the next available Court date my spirits began to lift. I knew that the footage would exonerate me and an adjournment meant I could be home, maybe even within the next hour.

The prosecution then asked to speak again. They requested I be held on remand if the trial was adjourned as I posed a danger to the Lucia. They said I would try to contact her and that my previous conviction was evidence of this. The truth was I had no intention of Lucia - I just wanted to go home. That wasn't going to happen though. The judge upheld the prosecution's request and turned to the Court clerk who by now had finished consulting the court calendar.

"November the 28th your honour", said the clerk.

Fireworks went off in head. My mouth dried and the voices in the court room faded in to the background. I was devastated. I counted the days until the new trial date....fifty six. I was going to be locked up for the next fifty six days. It didn't seem real. The court room gradually emptied and the guard ushered me from the dock back to my cell. As we left he turned to me with words of consolation

"You were unlucky there mate."

He was right, but it didn't matter now.

An officer was ready to greet me back in the cell. This officer had a friendly face and smiled at me sympathetically as I walked in.

"Are you ok?" he said.

"No. No I'm not ok! I haven't done anything wrong and I want to go home" I begged.

"There's been a mistake"

"I know, I know, it's OK" replied the guard in a overly soothing tone which suggested he had training for this kind of thing and heard the same plea many times before.

"You can't keep me locked up here for the next 56 days?" I protested.

The officer smiled, clearly amused by my naivety

"Don't be silly," he cajoled.

"You're not going to stay here. You'll be staying at Woodhill."

It was a name I hadn't heard before and the officer sensed this as his smile receded a little.

"Woodhill", he repeated,

"It's a prison in Milton Keynes. You'll feel much better about things once you're settled in there."

---------------------------

Up until that point the concept of prison hadn't really occurred to me. Thirty six hours had passed since my arrest but it felt like much, much longer. For the most part I'd remained positive, anticipating a release at any moment. I didn't dare consider being detained. Even when the verdict was given I still hadn't considered prison. I presumed I'd be held in the police station for the full fifty six days. In hindsight that was a silly presumption and what was to come would make me long for the relative safety of my cell at the station.

Three agonising hours passed and at 7:00 pm, the same officer returned. He fixed my cuffs and led me from the cell, through the police station and outside: to a car park and an armoured police van. I'd seen vans like this before; usually on TV with blanketed convicts being ushered inside with the press clamouring for pictures. A small part of me was intrigued to see the inside of one of these vehicles for the first time. A larger part of me couldn't believe that I was the convict being ushered inside.

The van was lined with five cells. At the front was one 'open' seat accompanied by a desk. On the desk sat a laptop and several phones - this was clearly the officer's seat. I was placed in the one unoccupied cell and as I boarded I could see the eyes of fellow passengers looking back at me through the slit windows of their cell doors. Once inside, a small triple-glazed window allowed me a tantalising glimpse of outside, but it's tinting prevented anyone from seeing in. Through this darkened glass I could see that the sun was now close to the horizon and I gazed at it until it blinded my eyes like a caveman staring in to a fire. After an hour the sun had almost set and I could feel the van beginning to slow and negotiating several speed bumps. The view outside changed from the lush greenery of roadside trees to the clinical grey of concrete and street lights. We arrived at HMP Woodhill just after 8 pm and began a mammoth sequence of security checks in order to access the maximum security facility.

As I was escorted from the van to prison reception the scale of the facility overwhelmed me. It was a huge place and it was incredibly secure. I learnt that my possessions had been transferred to the prison directly from the police station. The guard on reception documented these things and asked me to sign to confirm. Next came a rudimentary health check - my height, my weight, any allergies and such like, followed by a humiliating full-body and cavity strip-search. I was given a bed sheet, a blanket, a bowl and some plastic cutlery, and  I was issued with my prison uniform - a over-sized grey jogging suit. My mug-shot was taken and my ID card issued, complete with my very own prison number. Finally I was asked if I smoked. I said that I did, although I hadn't for two days and had barely thought about it.

"You came with a fiver didn't you Smith? Well, we'll take that for this." barked the officer as he tossed me a small polythene pack containing a pouch of cheap tobacco, some rolling papers and a lighter.

I thought back to my arrest two days earlier, when I'd grabbed five pounds before leaving my apartment. Stroke of luck I thought.

The guard led me from the prison reception to a door labelled - Induction Centre. As he turned the key in the door I prepared myself for what might be on the other side.

The Induction Centre had a surprisingly cosy feel, had it not been for the railings it could have been mistaken for a room in any leisure centre, library or university. Four rows of comfortable-looking chairs spanned the floor space and a single flat screen television hung on the far wall. On the last but one row of red chairs were two prisoners in familiar grey jogging suits. Our entrance didn't stir them and the guard explained that they were 'listeners' - experienced prisoners with long sentences who helped new inmates like me adapt to life behind bars. If I needed someone to talk to, or had any worries or concerns - the listeners were my first port of call. As we stood in the doorway the listeners glanced up and nodded before returning their gaze to the TV on the wall. It was a wildlife documentary about animals in a zoo.

The guard left and locked the door behind him. I shuffled forward and sat down alongside the two listeners.

"Great seeing a proper telly ennit Kirky?" said one of the men, his eyes still transfixed on the screen.

"Yeah, quality, mate", said the other.

A minute or two passed before Kirky turned to me and said

"So what are you in here for?"

I provided a brief synopsis and could see they were both underwhelmed. I explained I hadn't been inside before but I didn't really need to, it was abundantly clear that I was uncomfortable in these surroundings. Jack and Kirky were serving fifteen years and ten years respectively; attempted murder and armed robbery. They spoke with nonchalance and neither looked capable of the crimes they had been committed for. They explained that in prison cigarettes were called 'burn', a guard was a 'screw'; and a cell was rather deceptively called a 'pad'. When their tuition ended we returned to silence, and fixed our eyes on the TV.

The TV on the wall wasn't actually that impressive, smaller than the likes you would see in most homes across the country. As we watched, occasionally one of them would offer up a witty remark and the other would chuckle back. I found myself joining in, even though I didn't find anything even remotely funny. After about twenty minutes the screw returned and reapplied my handcuffs.

He led me from the Induction Centre, down a passageway, to an iron gate with a board above it marked - Wing 1B. This would be the place I called home for the next fifty six days — and maybe even more. We entered the wing and locked the gates behind us. I took a deep breath and surveyed the imposing scene before me.

The wing was triangular-shaped with windows spanning from the floor to the ceiling on the near wall. The other two walls were lined with four floors of twenty-or-so grey metal doors. Each floor was connected by a wiry, grey metal staircase. A couple of pool tables in the far corner were the only glimmer of humanity. The dim lighting did nothing to disguise the fact that the place was soulless and dull anyway. It was a menacing sight.

We scaled the wiry staircase to the second floor and stopped outside a cell door marked - 2-10B. With two sharp slides and a turn of the the key, the door opened and the guard ushered me in. Almost immediately the cell door slammed shut behind me and the same short sharp clunks signalled the end of my induction. That would be my last contact with the outside world until morning at least — other than the occasional eye through the metal shutter in the cell door, peering in to ensure inmates were still alive. For now that shutter was shut, making it impossible to see in, or out.

The cell measured twelve feet by six. To the right, a green curtain did it's best to conceal a shabby porcelain toilet and sink. To the left; two wooden boxes, with a portable TV perched on the one nearest the far wall. At the back of the cell was a small window with bars, beneath it a concrete ledge. Half of the floor space was occupied by a rickety set of bunk beds. The top bunk was empty and presumably mine. On the bottom bunk lay a man who looked roughly my age. He was white, heavy-set, with short brown hair and a scruff of brown stubble. My entrance seemed to startle him and as I stooped to catch his eye, he was already rising to his feet.

"Igor," he stated with a firm offer of the hand. His accent sounded Russian or Slavic.

"Julian," I replied, planting a firm shake in to his offered hand.

Now standing, I could see that he was a couple of inches shorter than me. He could see I was no threat to him and offered no threat of his own. Neither of us raised a full smile, but there was enough warmth and honesty in the greeting to allay my initial fears of murder or brutal ass-rape. He looked pleased to have company and the conversation began to flow.

Igor's English was good. He was from Lithuania, but born in Russia and at thirty one I was four years his elder. He lived in a town I knew well and had arrived in Woodhill earlier that day. This was his second time in prison; indeed his second time at Woodhill. His sentence on the previous occasion had been four months, this time he was also sentenced to four months, however, with good behaviour he hoped to be released after only two. Our initial exchange was reassuring. Igor was not a violent criminal, he seemed like a nice guy and he seemed a lot more comfortable in the present environment than I did.

Igor opened his pouch of tobacco, rolled a cigarette and perched on the ledge next to the window. I rolled a cigarette too. He asked me who I was, and why I was here.

I explained I hadn't been sentenced yet, I was on remand and my trial was still fifty six days away.

"Je-e-sus!" he gasped, raising his mono-brow in disbelief. "What did you do? Are you a terrorist?"

His question made me smile. Did he really think I was a terrorist? My grin vanished almost immediately when I realised he wasn't smiling back.

"No, no of course not!" I said, but Igor had already produced a pocket-sized Bible and thrusted it aloft.

"I am a Christian," he declared — with a pronounced rolling of the 'r'.

I quickly assured him of my own Christian upbringing and that I wasn't an Islamic fundamentalist, in fact I wasn't really religious at all. I went on to describe my arrest and the events that had led to me sharing his cell. As I told him about the adjournment and how I'd been refused bail I could see signs of sympathy in his rugged complexion. Igor knew of two other inmates who had been held in Woodhill for precisely the same thing. He told me that I should have pleaded guilty, reasoning that the crime 'only' carried an eight week sentence anyway. With good behaviour that would mean 'just' four weeks inside. By pleading not guilty I'd probably made things worse - eight weeks in Woodhill awaiting trial followed by a longer stretch if I was subsequently found guilty.

Igor was right. I cast my mind back to the family court hearing just a few days earlier and how elated I had felt. I'd waited so long for a Christmas with my children, now I was sitting in a prison cell facing the possibility of Christmas inside and alone. I might miss the final family court hearing scheduled for early January too. Even if I did get out, what chance did I stand now? With one, or maybe two convictions in just a few months, I stood no chance. The thought of incarceration filled me with terror but the thought of losing my children was of a magnitude a million times stronger. I felt hopeless. Things really couldn't get much worse.

I finished my cigarette and tossed the butt out of the window. Igor tutted in disgust.

"Don't throw it out there," he scolded. "Throw it in here"

He shook a cigarette butt laden yoghurt pot under my nose.

"You'll need them later."


Igor had good reason to suspect I was a terrorist. Fifty six days is the longest anyone can be detained in this country without trial. Recent anti-terror legislation increased this from the previous limit of twenty eight. Woodhill catered for all types of prisoners, he and I were category B. Our wing housed about seventy five other prisoners of both category B and category C. Igor pointed to the window, to a heavily secured block about fifty yards away outside.

"And that's where they keep the category A prisoners, also known as the lifers' block. Charles Bronson? Michael Adebelago?.."

He scanned my face for recognition and he wasn't disappointed. I'd heard of Charles Bronson, he was probably the most notorious prisoner in Britain, a man more infamous for his string of violence inside of prison walls, than the crimes he committed outside them. Adebelago rang a bell too but I couldn't think why. Igor explained that he was the man responsible for beheading Lee Rigby in one of the most gruesome politically motivated murder the country has seen. My proximity to these men reinforced the gravity of my situation. Between us and them, just a couple of stone walls, an electric fence and several metres of razor-like barbed wire. The perimeter of their block and ours was patrolled by a squadron of armed guards, each accompanied by a snarling Alsatian. In the eyes of the law I was now a dangerous criminal and I was going to be treated as such for the foreseeable future.

+


Chatting wit Igor made things seem almost normal. His impromptu induction was far more enlightening than the one with the listeners. He went on to describe our daily timetable which admittedly didn't take him long! Doors would be opened at 0800 for thirty minutes, during which time we could leave our cell. The same applied to lunch between 1145 and 1230, and again for dinner between 1645 and 1730. For the other twenty two hours of the day, doors would remained locked. Work and education were exceptions to this rule, but the application process for both took several weeks so neither Igor nor I could be considered for these yet. The only other exception was the twice weekly hour of 'social' which occurred every third day between 1430 and 1530. During this time we could socialise with other inmates, either around the pool tables in the wing, or on a supervised march around the yard outside.

Razor blades and replacement kit could be requested from the screws, but anything else had to be documented on the appropriate application form and requested from the governor. Applications forms were available from outside the governor's office on the ground floor. Once completed these were posted in boxes and a response given in due course. For any immediate requests or emergencies we must speak to the Governor directly and there would always be a very long queue.

With Igor's induction complete our conversation meandered across a range of subjects, but after an hour or so it inevitably began to wane. I made up my bed  and hopped up to the top bunk. Settling back I fixed my gaze on the tiny television. I had no TV at home. How ironic, I thought, that I should be finding escape in precisely the type of Friday programming I detested so much. It was the only distraction available and I allowed it to immerse me, trying not to think about my son and my daughter. They were probably fast asleep by now, no doubt wondering why their Daddy wasn't there this Friday. I knew it may now be months until I saw them again. I longed to hug them and kiss them but I didn't even have a photo — I missed them so much. As I stared at the screen I couldn't help thinking about the nights I'd spent alongside Lucia's hospital bed, holding her hand and staring at a screen of a different kind, waiting for our beautiful children to be born.

A convoy of programmes came and went, the contents of which would hold little interest to me typically. This wasn't a typical night in though and the lights and sounds radiating from the little set offered comfort, whilst the subject matter was irrelevant. I watched absorbed until I felt myself drifting away some time in the early hours of Saturday morning. Several times during the night I awoke to the bark of a prison dog, or the jangling of keys, or the haunting wails of a fellow inmate in some other cell.

BANG BANG! The cell door swung open. It was morning and a buzz of activity flooded through the door. As I came to, the realisation of where I was quickly crushed the brief respite provided by sleep. Igor was gone and clouds of steam poured in to the cell from the shower room next door. I hopped down from my bunk and freshened my face at the sink. There was no time for a shower, I needed to speak to the governor. I needed to let somebody know I was here.

The queue at the Governor's door was at least a dozen deep when I joined at the back. I surveyed my surroundings, taking care not to to eyeball anyone, but returning any nods or fist-taps which were offered my way. Everyone wore the same grey jogging suit. Some wore their own trainers from the outside world, whilst the less fortunate ones wore black, prison-issued, elasticated plimsolls. No laces were allowed as they presented an opportunity for escape via suicide.

Some inmates milled around, others huddled in groups, talking amongst themselves or to one of the three screws on duty in the wing. The bustle of chatter was in stark contrast to the scene of desolation which had greeted me some twelve hours earlier.

Five minutes elapsed and the queue hadn't moved. It was clear there was no chance of me reaching the front of it in the remaining twenty five minutes. I wouldn't be speaking to the governor this morning and there would be no call. I left the queue, dejected, and made my way back to the pad. As I mounted the staircase I passed a screw on his way down and asked him about making a call. He told me that due to the nature of my charge it may take up to six weeks for a call to be allowed. Lot's of checks needed to be made to ensure the safety of the witnesses and victims of violent crime. The only way a call could possibly be made would be for me to ask the Judge for special permission at my bail hearing next week.

"Bail hearing? I echoed inquisitively.

"What do you mean?

The screw said that all prisoners on remand are legally entitled to apply for a change in their bail conditions. This is usually done via video link with a Judge in the County Court and takes place about a week after the initial detainment. I could appeal for a phone call. I could even appeal for my release. The bitter disappointment I'd felt in the governor's queue was rapidly extinguished by a faint but warm glimmer of hope. I allowed myself a little smile as I completed the last few steps back to the cell. Fifty six days of detention might evaporate in to just seven! I could be home within a week and revelled in that possibility.

Igor could see I was lifted and eagerly asked why. I told him about the queue, the phone call, or lack of one, and the bail hearing next week. As I paused for breathe Igor interjected with a ruthlessness and logic that I couldn't deny.

"What will have changed in seven days?"

I had to concede, he had a very good point. The answer to his question was: nothing. Why would they change their minds? I had nothing new to say to them and they didn't believe me last time. He was right and we both knew it. He could see that his realism had floored me and tried to make amends.

"You never know my friend. It could happen. I wish you luck the best of luck. Besides, if they won't let you speak to anyone, you could always try writing." Igor pointed to a pen next to the TV. Why hadn't I thought of that myself I wondered, that's precisely what I'll do.


For the next seven days — aside from meal breaks, health checks and an educational assessment — I wrote. Each morning I collected a handful of application forms to use the reverse for my scribbles. I started with the most pressing matter, the reason for my release. Then I moved on to finances; documenting the monies I needed to pay, who to, and by when. I surprised myself by how much I could recall from memory; a faculty I'd long thought to be my Achilles heel. Next, more administrative duties from my life in the outside world — to my employer, my daughter's teacher, my solicitor, my doctor, my friends, and even to a friend to babysit my fantasy football team. With so much time to kill these things offered some amusement and when I'd organised and planned thoroughly I started writing about how I felt. Writing took away the frustration of being locked up like an animal. It transported me to another place in a way that neither Igor nor the TV could.

Lunch times were a frenzy of activity. First the scramble to collect food at the servery, then banter and chat, before the bartering commenced. Food was just one of the forms of currency that could be exchanged on the thriving black market operating within the wing. Clothes, sugar, burn and rolling papers were all staple commodities. And for those 'in the know' any prescription or recreational drug was available for the right price. The rush to pitch, haggle and transact before time was called made the negotiations all the more intense.

With no one aware of my detention there was no chance of me receiving any money from outside. I knew that if I wanted anything other than what was provided in my daily rations I would have to participate in this meleé.

I struck a deal with a softly spoken chap from the cell two doors down. I gave him my dessert each day in exchange for four sachets of sugar and two cigarettes worth of burn. He got the dessert hit he desired, whilst I could have a cup of tea and a cigarette each morning and evening. After a week or so of our arrangement I discovered that my bartering partner was serving seven years for armed robbery.

The lunch menu varied only slightly each day, it typically consisting of a baguette with two hard-boiled eggs and an apple. The evening feed offered a little more variety but was only fractionally more enticing. Minced beef was the primary component of almost every dish — sometimes it was mixed with potatoes, peas and sweetcorn to make a stew; sometimes it was mixed with pasta, tomatoes and onions, to make a bolognese, and sometimes it was simply minced beef with mashed potatoes. To follow: a chocolate biscuit, some jelly, or an iced lolly.

A breakfast pack was provided each evening, but rarely made it to morning, usually consumed in the evening due to boredom or hunger or both.


With my ability to communicate with the outside world deprived, I soon realised how much I valued it. My hours in police custody had been solitary and the privilege of another human was one of the few benefits of my move to Woodhill. When I wasn't writing, Igor and I delved into a vast range of subjects. We spoke about more, and on a much deeper level, than I had with most of my friends on the outside world who I'd known all my life.

Igor was kind, intelligent and selfless; not a bit like I'd expected from our initial meeting, nor from the stereotype his conviction and nationality might have suggested. He was deeply religious with an old-fashioned and altruistic nature. His depth of knowledge was impressive — from history and politics, to music and sport, he even shared my passion for geology. He was a husband and father too. He missed his children like I did. When he spoke about his girlfriend I thought back to happier times with Lucia, how we'd met and fell in love. I wished I had someone outside missing me like he did, but no one even knew I was there.

The removal of distractions is intended to provide prisoners with time to think; to reflect on their crimes, be remorseful and not re-offend. It's the first step in the rehabilitation process. For me, the  reflection simply accentuated the feelings of frustration, injustice and disbelief. I wanted to plead my innocence to someone, anyone, and I wanted to go home. At the very least I wanted to make a call, just to let people know where I was and that I was still alive. I couldn't though.

On day three I stopped writing for a few hours. I borrowed a book from the guy in the next cell. It was a novel; a thriller. Due perhaps to my environment or my mental state of mind it engrossed me completely. The story, about animals in a zoo bore remarkable similarities to the environment within which I was reading it. The themes and imagery resounded with me and as I turned the pages it felt like I was there. Not long after I finished it a piece of paper was slid under the door:

Julian Smith
Appeal Hearing
Northampton Crown Court (via videolink) - October xxth at 11:00

_________________________

Whilst I read and wrote Igor mainly watched TV. Three times a day we did a simple work-out routine: ten push-ups, ten sit-ups and ten reverse press-ups. It was good for the mind and good for the body, also good for dissecting dauntingly large periods of time. We reckoned if we kept it up we'd emerge from prison in tip-top shape. That was the plan, but with calorie intake at an all time low, I actually felt myself getting weaker and weaker with each passing day.

We read every single piece of graffiti in the entire cell — etchings that dated back as far as 1996. Some were funny, some were deep and philosophical, others were angst-ridden. Each tag evoked images of it's author and their story — their crime, their pain, their humour, their advice, who they loved and missed the most. My favourite tag was etched in the paint on the back of the cell door, it read:

'If you put people in cages, they'll behave like animals.'

---------

On day seven Igor I took a break from the writing. We consumed the entire day by cleaning the cell with nothing but two old toothbrushes, some toothpaste and four sachets of prison-issue shower gel. The toothpaste was used to polish the metal surfaces on the beds, the sink and the toilet handle. The folded up empty shower gel tied the loose curtain back to it's rail. We could finally go to the toilet without being in full view of each other. By the time we'd finished our compulsive clean the cell was immaculate. The sense of purpose, achievement and satisfaction derived from the task were strangely satisfying.


The television was the only link to the outside world and duly stayed on almost continuously. It was a welcome escape from reality and a good way to pass time. When I wasn't lost in writing I'd watch. Igor's viewing was pretty much constant and due to that he had free reign of channel selection. As someone who chooses not to own a TV, my dependency on it felt a lot like I'd imagine a vegetarian would feel who'd just eaten a load of bacon sandwiches..

For seven days Igor and I repeated the same process. Each day felt like a life time. Igor counted down the days, but I didn't know how many days I should be counting down from. It could be as little as 24 hours, or as much as a further forty-seven. If I was subsequently convicted it could be considerably more.

On the eighth day we were a given a brief escape from the cell and it probably came at a good time. With the bail hearing the next day I was apprehensive and neither the writing, nor the TV was distracting me.

Igor, myself and six other recent arrivals were taken from our cells to the Education Centre. As we left the wing and crossed the forecourt it occurred to me that this was the first time I'd been outside in five days. I squinted in the direct sunlight, the air smelt fresh and moist in my nostrils. The light drizzle felt wonderful on my cheeks. It was a reminder to my senses that I was still alive.

The purpose of our trip was twofold, firstly to meet with a Relocation Officer, then on to complete tests in literacy and numeracy. With my consent the officer could conduct business on my behalf on the outside world. I thought back to the things I'd written in the cell and recounted. The officer seemed surprised by the length of my list which included a message to my employer, a payment to my landlord and a host of other bills, even a note to my daughter's schoolteacher to apologise for my no-show at parents evening. I agreed that I would give him consent the next day, depending on the outcome of my appeal.

The numeracy and literacy tests took place in a locked class room. We each had a PC and the tests got progressively harder with each level. A certain percentage of correct answers needed to be achieved to reach the next level. When finished, each inmate was given a print-out of their score, had a chat with the tutor and then was escorted back to their cell.

Image result for prison education

The early levels of the tests were simple, but as they progressed the questions became more and more complex. I hadn't done simultaneous equations since I was at school. It took all of my focus and all of my memory to remember how, but it was incredibly satisfying. I got so engrossed I didn't realise that everyone had left except for the tutor and a guard and they were both now peering over my shoulder.

"You'll have to finish now, it's time for lock-up," said the screw.

"But I'm not finished yet," I pleaded, and pointed at the unfinished sum on the screen.

"Let him finish this one," said the tutor.

I completed the final maths question with an impatient screw breathing down my neck. I thought that deserved extra marks, but the screw didn't seem particularly impressed. As soon as the question was answered he whisked me back to my cell. The tutor didn't even have time to print off the results, but said she would send them on in the mail, I would get them later, or tomorrow morning.

Back in the cell me and Igor now had something to talk about. He talked about how it was hard for him to complete the literacy test in his second language, but did well in the numeracy test. Less than an hour later we were still talking it through when the cell door opened again.

The guard told me the tutor wanted to see me to give me my test results. I thought it was strange as she told me they would be posted to the cell, regardless I was pleased to be getting another outing. He led me back to the Education Centre and back to the same room where I had completed the test an hour or so earlier. This time it was just me and the tutor, and this time her tone was different; more welcoming, and smiling.

She told me I'd done very well in both tests and asked me what my job was 'on the outside'. I explained I was involved in the planning of business development strategy. The tutor told me I had scored the highest marks she'd seen since the test was introduced in 2010. She was lavish with her praise and for a brief moment I felt valued and genuinely proud. She asked me how long my sentence was and if I would like to work in the Education Centre. I explained that I was on remand, but if my appeal was denied I would be glad to help — it would be a pleasure.

All of this took my mind off the impending appeal, it even offered some solace if the appeal was denied. At least I'd have something to occupy myself with. The respite was brief; within a couple of hours the cell door opened again. Again it was a screw. This time he simply said:

"Smith, Dagys - get your stuff together, you're moving. I'll be back to get you in five minutes."

The guard returned in what felt like a matter of seconds and silently led us out of our cell, through the security checks and outside. Moist air filled our lungs as we squinted in the hazy autumn sunshine. We walked barely fifty yards before entering a block that looked identical to the one we'd just left. It was lock-up so the wing was eerily quiet.

Igor was first to be dropped off. The guard removed his handcuffs and ushered him in to his new cell. Inside I could see a prisoner sitting on the bottom bunk. I thought back to the moment I had been delivered to Igor's cell. Igor turned, our eyes met and we exchanged nods. The cell door slammed shut and he was gone. As soon as the door slammed shut, a volley of thuds could be heard from inside.

"I told you I didn't want anyone in with me. Get this fucker out of here!" Igor's new cellmate didn't seem too pleased with the new company.

"SHUT IT!" ordered the guard through the slit in the door, then snapped it shut.

My palms became clammy as the guard turned his gaze back to me.

"Come on," he said, gesturing in the direction he wanted me to go. We walked right to the end of the wing, to the very last cell door.

The guard removed my handcuffs, swung open the door and guided me in. On the bottom bunk my new cell mate lay motionless, gazing vacantly at the television. Before I had time to assess the situation the cell door slammed shut behind me.

"Alright?" I said — trying my best to sound confident and assured without being confrontational or aggressive. He nodded, but his eyes remained fixed on the television. It was clear he didn't want to talk. I awkwardly jumped on to the top bunk, glad to be out of his view. I stared at the television and tried to stay calm. My stomach was in knots. The security blanket of Igor had gone and the early impression of my new cell mate was not a good one. I alternated my gaze between the television, the ceiling and the tiny window for what must have been hours. Other than the sounds from the television the cell was silent. I willed myself to sleep but there was no chance. I was on edge. Every movement from the bunk below filled me with dread. Who was this guy? Why was he here? Why won't he talk to me?

Relief came in the form of dinner. The cell door clunked and swung open, air rushed in to the cell and the tension escaped. I leapt from my bunk and out of the cell.

I joined the queue for food. The faces were new, but the game was the same. I exchanged nods with anyone that offered eye contact, being careful not to eyeball anyone. I scanned the queue for Igor but there was no sign of him. As I got to the counter I held out my plate and cup.

"You're new here mate and you haven't placed an order so you'll get what's left," growled the server as he pointed to the back of the queue. I apologetically shuffled to the back of the queue and waited. It turned out to be a long wait and when I did get served all that remained was one hard-boiled egg and a bread roll.

I took my meagre rations and scanned the wing for somewhere to sit. There was still no sign of Igor so I sat alone in the corner. My mouth was dry from the nerves and I found it almost impossible to swallow. I was so hungry that I ploughed on; taking a gulp of water with each mouthful to wash it down. As I was nearing the end of my meal two inmates approached my table and sat either side of me.

"Alright mate?" they said in unison.

They went through the questions I had now become accustomed to: name, age, crime and sentence. Each of my answers was met with a nod and a smile. They seemed friendly enough, but something about their smiles made me feel uneasy. Their source of amusement would soon become clear.

"You know who you're in with, don't you?" the shorter of the two inquired.

"No..." I cautiously responded. Again they looked at each other and smiled.

"Should I?"

The inmate to my left cleared his throat and took and inhaled sharply.

"Your cell mate is serving 12 years for attempted murder. He was on a 10 year stretch, but they added two more years after he cut up his last - and only - cell mate."

I stifled my gasp and tried my best to act nonchalantly. I hoped that this was a joke, some sort of initiation prank. Surely I wouldn't be put in a cell with someone like that? As they continued I soon realised that this was no joke.

My new cell-mate had been in solitary confinement for the last six months. They told me he was on all sorts of medication, that he was a real loose canon, that I should be careful..

My nervous smile was now replaced with obvious horror. My worst fears had just become reality. I was about to be locked in a cell with an attempted murderer for the next 14 hours. I knew that if anything happened it would take a guard at least 10 minutes to reach the cell. Plenty enough time for me to be chopped in to little pieces. And even if I did make it through the next 14 hours, how would I make it through the next 42 days? My horror was now accompanied by an immediate sense of panic — I am going to die here and no one will know. No one even knows I'm here. I thought about my children, how I wished I could hold them. I glanced over to the far side of the food hall. My new cell mate sat alone, head down, focused only on his food. He must have felt my glare, he turned his head and for the first time since we had met he looked in to my eyes. As I switched my gaze back to my plate the guard bellowed:

"Time please gentlemen, let's have you back in your pads."

This time when the cell door closed I genuinely believed I wouldn't be alive in the morning.

My new cell mate was now ready to break his silence. He spoke with a broad Glaswegian accent — oozing with aggression and barely intelligible. I concentrated intently.

He asked me the usual questions; I returned the gesture, even though I already knew the answers. He called himself Jock, though I was pretty sure that wasn't his real name. Sure enough he had been convicted of attempted murder, he omitted to tell me about the fate of his last cell mate and I certainly wasn't going to ask. His dialogue was jumpy, his eyes were wild and there was an overwhelming sense that even whilst calm, he was only moments away from blind rage. He described the details of his crime, and how he regretted not "finishing the guy off".

During our introduction it became apparent that he was passionate about football. I told him about my brief career as a professional footballer and he seemed suitably impressed. Glad that we had found some common ground, I hopped on to my bunk. My new companion and surroundings placed even more importance on the appeal  hearing I was due to attend the next day. It wasn't just about freedom and justice anymore, it was now life or death. I had to get out, or die.

I laid on my bunk and stared at the television. Jock was pacing around the cell, he was clearly not comfortable. He opened the cupboard under the television and pulled out a small plastic cup filled with blue and white pills. He took one of each and the returned the cup to the cupboard. Next he produced a pouch of what looked like tobacco and sat on the ledge next to the slit window. As he rolled a cigarette and put it to his lips he asked:

"Do ye smoke?"

"Yes" I said. He motioned to me to take a drag of his cigarette. "No, it's OK — I've got my own baccy," I said.

He laughed, "This isn't baccy.. it's spice. It will help you sleep."

I'd never heard of spice, but the room was now full of pungent smoke with a fruity tang. I put the cigarette to my lips and inhaled. Immediately I started to cough. Again Jock laughed. I handed the cigarette back to him and returned to my bunk.

As I lay on my bunk I could feel my head getting fuzzy and my heart pounding against my chest. I started to feel paranoid, I needed to get out, but I couldn't. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep but my mind was racing. Thankfully, it wasn't long until I could hear snoring from the bunk below. Jock was asleep. Now I just needed to make it to the morning.

I don't remember falling asleep, or sleeping. The next thing I do remember was being awoken by the familiar and now friendly clunk of the cell door. It was morning. I had made it through the night.

As I strode across the wing to the servery, the euphoria of making it through the night quickly subsided as my thoughts returned to the bail hearing that lay ahead. I collected my breakfast and returned to the same seat I had sat in the previous day. The two inmates who had warned me the day before gave me a nod of approval.

I glanced back to my cell just as Jock was emerging. He was easily six feet tall and heavily set. His muscular arms strained to burst through his prison issue t-shirt and his whole demeanour screamed danger. Conversations hushed as he descended the metal staircase. Heads dropped as he passed each table. It was clear that Jock commanded universal respect.

"Morning Jock," chirped a heavily tattooed inmate.

Either Jock didn't hear, or he simply didn't care. He ignored the greeting, and also the queue at the servery, but no one seemed to object. Silently, and armed only with a polythene bag of Rice Krispies Jock joined me at my table.

"Did you sleep OK?" I nervously inquired.

"Yeah, nae bad," he said through a mouth full of cereal.  "Did ye enjoy yer smoke last night?" he added with the hint of a mischievous grin.

"Um, yeah.. it kind of knocked me out," I replied, mirroring his grin.

Jock erupted with a deep belly laugh, "Good man."

"Time gentleman please," bellowed the screw. "Back in your pads please." As the inmates began to filter out of the servery, the screw reeled off a list of surnames from the clipboard in his hand who were to wait behind. His list included mine.

The screw told me that my bail hearing would be at 3 pm that afternoon, and that I must wait in my cell until then. I glanced up to the clock on the wall: 830 am. 3 pm was still six hours away, that meant I would have to spend at least six more hours alone with Jock. As the screw led me back to my cell I took a deep breath. Last night had been an ordeal but the next six hours were going to be just as bad, if not worse.

Once inside Jock asked me where I'd been. I told him about the bail hearing and expanded on the brief answers I'd given him the previous day. As I shared my story I could see he was captivated. I told him how I hadn't done anything wrong and that I was missing my children terribly. I detected a hint of humanity in his usually wild and vacant eyes.

Satisfied with our exchange I retired to my bunk and fixed my gaze on the television. Plumes of spicy smoke began to waft up from the bunk below. I closed my eyes and willed for time to pass quickly.

A loud thud woke me from my slumber with a start. I opened my eyes and glanced at the cell door. It was still shut. Confused; I sat up. If the door was still shut, what made that noise?

Jock was pacing back and forth, he looked agitated. He turned his wild eyes to mine as I sat up.

"What's wrong?" I asked, unsure if I really wanted to know the answer.

"I'm out of smokes," he snarled. "I called for the guard half an hour ago and he's still not fockin' here. If he dunnae come soon I'm gonnae go fockin' mental." He turned and delivered a volley of punches and kicks to the cell door.

"Ye got any smokes?" he demanded.

"No, I'm all out," I apologised.

Jock grimaced and let out a primal scream. Incensed, he walked over to the television and in one fluid movement swept it off the cupboard. It felt to the floor and smashed. Thick shards of glass now littered the cell floor. He looked at me with a feral smile. I nervously smiled back dreading his next move. I was now locked in a cell with an agitated and unrepentant attempted murderer who now had a variety of glass weapons at his disposal.


Instinct told me to run but my legs disagreed, besides there was nowhere to run to anyway. I thought back to my children. Would I ever see them again? Jock returned to the cell door and commenced pummelling. I squeezed my eyes tightly shut and began to pray.

Behind Jock's thunderous pounding I thought I could hear the faint rattling of keys, or was my mind playing tricks on me? No, it was definitely keys and Jock's assault on the door paused momentarily. A voice boomed in to the room with comforting authority.

"Get on your bed Jock," the voice ordered. "Face down."

"Fuck ye," Jock spat back.

In a flurry of activity the door swung open and three screws rushed in. The first two pinned Jock down on his bunk whilst the third swiftly applied the handcuffs. Now restrained it still took two screws to frog-march him out of the cell. The third screw turned to me and told me he would be back in a minute to clean up. As the cell door closed I could hear Jock's vitriol fading gradually in to the distance. I flicked my gaze back to the shards of glass on the cell floor, scarcely able to believe the carnage that had just taken place.


Within ten minutes one of the screws returned.

"Time for your hearing now Smith," he said.

I jumped down from the bunk and carefully negotiated my way around the shards of shattered glass on the floor. The screw handcuffed me and escorted me out of the wing. As we crossed the forecourt a prison dog snarled and strained at it's leash. Despite my fear of dogs it barely registered. I was still haunted by what had just taken place and fearful of the hearing that lay ahead. We entered another faceless building, through two security checks and in to a waiting room. The screw removed my cuffs, deposited me and left. In no time at all a female screw entered the room and led me out of the waiting room and down a dimly lit corridor.

The corridor had several doors lining each wall. The screw opened the last door on the right to reveal a small cubicle with two grey plastic chairs. Opposite the chairs was a small wooden desk and a television screen which for now was blank. The screw guided me to sit in the chair to the left, she took the chair to the right and fixed her gaze at the blank screen, so I did the same.

After a few moments the blank screen flickered in to life to reveal a court room that I recognised from ten days earlier. The presiding judge sat at the front of the court room, to his right: the prosecution, to his left - a familiar face. It was the same solicitor that had spoken with me whilst I was in police custody. The same solicitor that had represented me in the very same court room just ten days earlier. It was only ten days ago, but it felt like a lifetime.

The judge introduced himself and explained the purpose of the hearing. The prosecution spoke first and just as before, painted the picture of a villain. In their words I was violent and dangerous - a danger to women and children. This latest incident proved that I had no record for the law and Lucia was terrified of me. They recommended I be charged and detained, to protect the victim and learn the errors of my ways.

Next came the defence. I crossed the fingers in my clammy hands and hoped for the best. My solicitor countered the prosecution by stating I was not a danger to any one. Other than the 'mistake' a month earlier, which itself was non-violent, I had no previous convictions for anything and fifteen year employment history which suggested a man of substance.

Finally. the judge turned to me and asked me what had happened that day. Nervously, I echoed the words of my solicitor, that I'd done nothing wrong and that CCTI said that the last ten days had been terrifyingI assured him that if I was released I would not try to interfere with either of the witnesses. I told him that I was scared and I just wanted to go home. I could hear the desperation in my own voice.

The judge advised that the court would now retire to consider what they had heard; they would be back soon to deliver their verdict and with that the television screen returned to black. I wringed my hands, turned to the screw alongside me and nervously enquired:

"How do you think that went?"

She could see that my eyes were filling with tears.

"You'll just have to wait and see," she said, "It shouldn't take too long."

I turned my attention back to the blank screen and tried to stay calm. After an eternal and painstaking wait the screen flickered back to life. The judge began to speak. I felt my chest tighten and my heart race. His words were barely audible above the sound of my own thunderous heart beat.

"The court has decided that providing you live only at your home address and that you do not contact the witnesses - you will be released until the final hearing in 45 days time. Do you understand?"

"Yes," I mouthed, but no sound came out. I tried again..

"Yes your honour, I understand. And thank you. Thank you so much."

With that the screen returned to black. I turned to the screw. I was euphoric, but emotionally drained. Her eyes were now full of water too and she was smiling back at me. All of the pent up emotion tumbled from my eyes. Instinctively, I leant forward and embraced the screw. For the first time I could remember I felt safe. After a moment the screw backed out of the hug.

"OK, we have to take you back to your cell now. You will be released later today."

Ten minutes later the screw returned to take me back to the wing. He didn't need to ask me how the hearing had gone, my face did that for me. Even the application of handcuffs couldn't wipe the broad grin off my face. There was a spring in my step as we crossed the forecourt and entered the wing. I knew that these were the final few hours of my incarceration. Eleven days of fear, pain and longing would soon be over. I'd made it — or at least that's what I thought.

The faint murmur of voices grew louder as we passed through security and in to the servery, it was lunch time. The screw removed my cuffs and told me he would back at 3 pm to prepare me for release. I glanced up to the clock on the wall — 12:05.

The morning's events had tied my stomach in knots, it was only now I realised just how hungry I was. I tore off a chunk of bread and eagerly stuffed it in to my mouth as I crossed the servery and made my way to my 'favourite' seat. Before I got there a voice stopped me in my tracks. It was a voice I recognised and it was calling my name in an unmistakable Slavic accent:

"Julian...Hey! JULIAN!"

"Igor!" I exclaimed, with a mixture of surprise and delight. "It's so good to see you!"

As I approached Igor I scanned his face. He was smiling but his eyes looked sad, as I got closer I could see that his right eye was swollen, above it an arc of butterfly stitches intersected his mono-brow, below it a purple bruise faded through blue, green and yellow as it crept across his cheekbone and down to his jawline.

"What happened?" I asked, incredulously.

"Oh.. that," he said dismissively and with the pretence that suggested he'd forgotten the right side of his face had been butchered. "Don't worry, that's nothing. You should see the other guy!" he quipped. "We had a fight and now I'm in a cell on my own. What about you?"

I thought back to the events of the last 24 hours and took a deep breath. "It's a long story, but the good news is I'm going home today!"

"That's great!" Igor boomed with passion and sincerity. "That really is great."

For the next few minutes I told Igor about my experience the night before. Igor's eyes and mouth progressively widened with disbelief as I told him firstly about Jock, then the spice, and then the fate of the television.

Our catch-up was punctured by the screw's call of 'time'. Igor's new pad was three doors away from mine so we made our way back together. It was only when we paused outside my cell that it dawned on me — this was goodbye. I was leaving in a few hours but Igor would be here for at least another two months. The thrill of my imminent release was tempered by the thought that I was leaving him behind. I almost felt guilty. With a hand shake and a goodbye, Igor was gone.

I pushed the cell door open and made my way inside for the final time. There was an empty space on the cupboard where the television used to be. I looked down to the floor: the shattered glass had gone too. My eyes flicked over to the bunk and I froze in horror. On the bottom bunk with his hands clasped behind his head lay Jock. He lay motionless; the shadow cast from the top bunk made it difficult to see his expression. He was either asleep or staring at the underside of the bunk above. I blinked hard, unsure if what I was seeing was real, but each time my eyes opened he was still there.

A sharp clunk from behind me made me jump. It was the screw locking us in. It stirred Jock too, he let out a huge yawn and turned his head. I could see his eyes now and he was looking straight at me.

"Bet ye didn't expect me to be here did ye?" Jock said with a slightly deranged snigger. He could see that I was nervous and seemed to be revelling in it.

"Er.. no, no I didn't," I nervously fumbled.

"What's wrong?" he said. "What are ye scared of? Do ye think I'm gonnae slice ye up like that other fucker?"

This was the first time Jock had openly admitted the attack on his previous cell mate. Up until that point I'd been able to convince myself that it wasn't true, but now it was out in the open there was no hiding from it. My mind raced through all the possible responses, but when I opened my mouth to speak all I could muster was a nervous giggle. The silence of the cell amplified my giggle, it rang loud in my ears and hung in the air. I sounded ridiculous. Ridiculous and terrified.

Jock unfolded his arms and reached beneath his pillow, his eyes remained fixed on mine. I wanted to run, but there was nowhere to run too, besides my feet were glued to the floor. My heart was pounding so hard I thought it might burst through my chest and a thousand angry butterflies fluttered in my gut. Time slowed down to a standstill, I closed my eyes and swallowed hard. What was he reaching for? What did he have under that pillow — a piece of glass, a razor blade, a knife? I knew when I opened my eyes I would have the answer.

When I did open my eyes Jock was still smiling, my gaze flashed down to his hand, but there was no weapon. Instead his meaty paw clutched several sheets of paper and he was holding them out towards me. The frozen terror thawed in my veins and my fear subsided.

"I was reading yer stuff," he said, "I hope ye don't mind."

I looked back at the clutch of papers and recognised them as my own. Jock had read everything — all of my personal thoughts, my hopes, my fears, how I had lost my children, my job, my everything.

"No, no of course not," I said cautiously, still unsure how the rest of the exchange was going to play out.

"Good, cuz I thought it was really good. Ye don't deserve to be here mate and your ex sounds like a fockin' bitch. How could she do that to ye?"

I nodded and shrugged, muted by shock this time rather than fear. Finally able to move my feet I shuffled across the cell towards Jock and reclaimed the clutch of papers.

"I'm nae allowed another telly so I'm gonnae write too," Jock declared triumphantly.

"Good man," I said mimicking Jock's response from the previous days' smoking initiation. "They're going to let me go home at three o'clock today," I added, with a relieved smile.

"Get in there ye focking beauty," Jock toasted with a clenched fist. "Before ye go, I've got something for ye," he said, and his hand disappeared back under his pillow again. This time he pulled out a much smaller piece of paper and pressed it in to my hand. There was a name and telephone number scrawled on it:

JOSIAH BLAKE — 07966 406 326

"What's this?" I asked, thinking I must be missing something.

"Ye ever get in any trouble, or ye need someone fockin' up — call that number and say your a friend of Jocks. Oh, and when ye do get out can ye send me in some paper and pens?"

"Yes of course," I said, "And thanks." I wasn't entirely sure what the appropriate response to being offered the services of a hitman was and I was pretty certain I would never need one, but this was Jock's way of saying thanks and I wasn't about to decline. Jock's offer, whilst genuine, was a chilling reminder of just how far I had descended in to the shadowy world of criminality. As I jumped up to the top bunk I allowed myself a private smile. This would make a good story I thought, and picked up my pen.

'56 Days by Julian Smith'

It wasn't long before the screw returned and led me away from the cell for the final time. I shook Jock's hand and bid him farewell before offering my hands to the screws handcuffs. As he escorted me down the metal staircase I paused and allowed myself one final look back. I looked at Igor's cell and gave a nod just in case he was watching. My civilian clothes and personal possessions were returned, along with my dignity and freedom. I shaded my eyes in the bright autumn sunshine and felt the warm rays on my face. I walked at least a couple of hundred yards before allowing myself one final look back — it was a menacing sight — but I was now free.


Copyright © 2015 by Adam Cann

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