CH TWO 6
Frank is lying flat on his back staring at the flaking paint on the ceiling barely a foot above his head. The dawn is creeping in through the small square window of his cell and his companion is snoring loudly, as he does every night for hour after tedious hour. The only reason he has been able to take the upper bunk is because Roger Black can’t stand the draught from the ill-fitting window.
As the ‘new boy’ it is Frank’s first task of the day to empty the slop bucket, an odorous task when the contents are yours alone but more so as they are mixed with Roger’s nightly contributions.
The electric locks buzz as the doors are opened and the men line up, shuffling along the landings to empty their buckets in the latrines at the ends of each row. Frank has learned not to speak to anyone unless spoken to first, not to show any sign of weakness and to take no interest in his fellow inmates or their guards. You don’t ask questions and you don’t offer information; you just keep your head down and do as you are told. That way the time goes by with the minimum of trouble.
After a quick wash and shave in a cracked sink in the communal wash room, the inmates line up outside the hall and file in for breakfast. The usual fare is on offer: take it or leave it porridge made with low-grade meal fit for pigs, curled up bread and greasy margarine, mugs of tea with no sugar. If you want sugar you have to buy it from your ‘wages’ of 75pence a week which you can spend at the ‘shop’ on a Saturday morning.
Frank sits alone as often as he can but today he is joined at the formica-topped table by one of the old hands, Cracker Peel, who seems determined to strike up a conversation. Frank has been warned about Cracker Peel but doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of him so he listens to the man and grunts non-committal replies to his questions. ‘I hear you’re working in the officers’ mess,’ says Peel, ‘I hope you’ll remember who your mates are if you get any little extras come your way.’
Frank says there is no chance of filching anything from the mess as there are too many ‘trusty’s’ with eyes everywhere just waiting for the chance to grass up the new boy. Peel leans in close and taps his nose, ‘I’m sure a clever man like you will find a way,’ he smirks, before taking his plastic tray and moving to another table.
Huh, thinks Frank, if you think you’re getting any of my little extras you’ve got another think coming. The biscuits, cake and tins of cling peaches are safely concealed in his spare trousers in the space above the rail in his cupboard which he has hidden with a sheet of cardboard. The hidey hole has passed two inspections during his five week stay and he is confident that it will remain a secret known only to him. He is partial to a few tinned peaches after dinner and can rely on at least 20 minutes to himself while his cell mate carries out his evening ablutions down the landing.
Frank looks forward to this precious time when he is alone with his thoughts, with nobody sticking their nose in or spying from a shadowy corner. You can’t trust anyone in this place.
Frank is laying out the cutlery on nicely ironed table cloths in the officers’ mess, whistling a merry tune and trying not to make eye contact with Peter Foyle, who is in for something very nasty and is top on the list of people everyone else wants to tip boiling water over. Several times the wretch has attempted to make conversation but with no success. Frank is glad that Black at least had the decency to warn him about the poor excuse for a man. People like him make his skin crawl.
The room is ready for service and the ‘chef’ opens the roller shutter and directs his staff to place the food trays on the heated plates. The senior warders file in and take their allotted seats; some strike up conversations with their companions, others sit reading a newspaper or waiting to be served.
Frank gets on with his duties, which include handing out tea and coffee, clearing away after each course and stacking plates ready for washing up later. He doesn’t mind washing up but wishes that he had some rubber gloves: his hands are in a shocking state due to the soda used to cut through grease in the washing-up water. Still, mustn’t grumble: there are far worse jobs in this nick and at least he doesn’t have to talk to anybody.
The last of the diners leaves and the tables are cleared for the next sitting. Frank gets on with the washing up, helped by a small thin man in his sixties who has been assigned to help out for today. The four other lags turn and scowl as the man commits the mortal sin of asking Frank what he got sent down for. ‘You know better than to ask, Arbuckle, the years you’ve been inside,’ glowers the ‘sous chef’ wagging a meat cleaver in his direction. ‘Just trying to make conversation, ‘says Arbuckle. ‘I’ve been in eight years for blowing a safe at one of the dog tracks. I wouldn’t have minded but there was only fifty quid in there at the time. Still, I’ve always been unlucky, so my mother says. Got another six months of this shite then I’m on my way home. I may even go straight this time; I’m getting too old for this lark.’
Frank ignores the man and finishes his task. He is drying his hands when one of the warders puts his head through the hatch. ‘Ridley, the Governor wants a word with you.’ Frank looks bewildered, ‘Why? I haven’t done anything.’ He sincerely hopes his stash of peaches has not been discovered as he had planned swapping a tin for some cigarettes later in the day. ‘Just hurry up and follow me,’ orders the screw, marching ahead with his key chain jangling against his leg.
Frank is supposed to stand to attention as he waits for the Governor to look up from his desk, but few inmates afford the man this courtesy and it is not imposed. ‘Ah,’ says the Governor, referring to a letter he is holding, ‘so you are Francis Ridley.’ The warder nudges Frank in the back and he replies in the affirmative. ‘I’ve had a letter,’ continues the Governor, quite unnecessarily as he is holding it in his hand, ‘from the Bishop, no less.’ The warder eyes his charge with extra suspicion as Frank stands in silence waiting to hear what the Bishop wants of him. ‘You haven’t sent out any Visiting Orders since you arrived here. Care to tell me why?’
‘I would have thought that is obvious,’ says Frank, a comment which earns him another jab in the back for his cheek. ‘I don’t want any visitors,’ he concludes. ‘Well there are people who want to see you, God alone knows why, and have travelled all the way from Manchester so I am minded to grant their wish whether you like it or not. Do you understand?’ Frank colours in anger, ‘No sir, I do not understand. I told everyone before I was sent down that I don’t want anyone seeing me in prison so whoever it is and however far they have travelled, that’s their hard luck not mine.’
The Governor is accustomed to being spoken to in a hostile way and takes little notice of Frank’s reluctance. ‘Apparently your sister and her husband are here on behalf of your mother, who is too ill to travel. They have promised to see you and report back to her. Surely you can’t deny your own mother news of your state of being. As a Church minister, your brother-in-law does have some rights and with this letter from the Bishop, no less, I see no reason to turn down his request. You may leave.’ And with that, Frank is marched from the office and along to the visiting room usually set aside for meetings between detainees and their legal representatives. The warder advises him to behave himself or he will be on report.
The Reverend Canon Gilbert Inigo Thorne enters the room in cheery mood, followed at a distance by his long-suffering wife Norma, Frank’s eldest sister. They sit at the table opposite him. ‘Well Frank, you took some tracking down,’ smarms his brother-in-law, ‘why didn’t you tell anyone where they had sent you?’
‘I would have thought that was obvious even to a drip like you,’ replies Frank, calmly, ‘because I don’t want any visitors. Why would I want anyone to see me in a place like this?’
Gilbert does his odd neck-stretch and clears his throat. ‘Your mother asked us to come; she’s worried sick about you. What on earth has happened to you? You never used to act like this.’
Norma timidly adds that all the family are concerned, even Michael. ‘Don’t mention that bloke to me,’ seethes Frank, ‘bloody Herman the German getting his feet under the table. He reckons he can marry Ma and if she dies before him then he’ll get the lot. Over my dead body; after all the years looking after her since dad died he needn’t think he can walk in and take over.’
‘So you just walk away and leave them to it!’ Says his sister, ‘how is that going to stop the man? Anyway Ma said she will never marry again so you needn’t worry about that. She enjoys his company, that’s all. He takes her on all those foreign holidays and she gets a bit of fun out of life. Surely you don’t begrudge her that?’
Frank didn’t know that Ma had made up her mind never to marry again and he feels a little foolish for his over-reaction but he still hates Herman the German even if he is just ‘the lodger’, as Norma insists. It does put a rather different light on the subject though.
They chat about nothing in particular for 10 minutes then the warder tells them it’s time to go. ‘Don’t worry; says Frank as they are leaving, ‘I won’t be doing this again. When I get out of here I’m going straight.’ The warder gives him a ‘They all say that’ look and escorts him back to the officers’ mess, where there is a pile of washing up awaiting his attention.