When I phoned the prison, this guy with a London accent kept saying he didn’t understand me but I bit my tongue and spelled out my name, address and date of birth, set the visit for three days later.
I always feel I’ve lost something when I cross the border. Moving into another space. It was a long drive and I pulled into Westmoreland for a coffee and something to eat. A guy in a wheelchair was in the doorway shaking a tin. I made a hand gesture that meant I’ve no change but will give you what coins I have on the way out. It’s funny how much you can say with your hands.
They were doing thermal mugs for one ninety-nine. I thought one would cheer me up a wee bit. As I paid I remembered the guy in the wheelchair and hoped she’d give me enough change not to be embarrassed. It was a ten pound note and a pound coin. I dropped the pound coin in.
—Merry Christmas, the guy said. He had a Glasgow accent.
—Aye, same to you mate.
When I walked away I had that tension you get in your chest before you cry. I got into the anonymity of the car and watched him. He looked cold in his wheelchair as I transferred the coffee into my new thermal mug. It fitted in the hole in the dash perfect. But, even though it was a great thing, it didn’t take the edge off my feelings. The temperature was hovering at zero and you could see darkness coming from the east. The coffee was cool enough to drink by Shap summit. It was good to be warm and cocooned in that car with sleet hitting the windows like sand and, every few seconds a punch of wind trying to shunt me over. I passed an artic lying on its side, snow covering it like a blanket, the crash barrier shining and twisted like tinsel.
I was going to bite my tongue if it was the phone guy but it was three women and they were helpful. I asked if I could hand in an AA book.
—Is it biblical?
—Only books can be handed in are biblical.
—I suppose it could be considered as biblical, in a way.
The three of them gathered and flicked through. One got on the phone and as she enquired another checked my ID and told me the procedure. I was in luck, the one on the phone said, they were in a good mood and I could hand the book in. Then, as an afterthought, she asked did I have a pound coin.
—For the locker.
I had a ten pound note and a credit card. They explained you put your car keys, your money and valuables in a wee locker.
—They won’t let you in without a pound coin, did no one tell you that? she said.
—You get the pound coin back when you leave, she said.
—I know I’m Scottish but I’m not worried about the pound coin. I’m hardly going to worry about a pound coin am I?
There was a silence, and I don’t know how long it lasted. I was thinking how time speeds up as you get older. But this last month, since he got put in, time has slowed right down for me. Every day I’m counting.
A bus drew up.
—There’s the bus. Ask bus driver for change.
He was counting money when I tapped the door and he reached out and hissed it open without changing position. It was his eyes that swivelled. There was one old woman and a young guy on this bus. My hair was laced with snow.
—Don’t have change of a ten pound note do ye?
He clicked pound coins from one hand to another but the rhythm stopped at seven and he said,
—Is it a Scottish note?
—Can’t take Scottish notes.
I went to speak but nothing came out.
—Not legal tender, he said.
I was going to say, listen mate, my son’s in there, I’ve travelled two hundred miles to see him, I’m tired and I’m emotional. But he thrashed the coins into some metallic thing and although the rage came up and exploded in my shoulders I stayed calm.
—Roll on Independence, I said and got off, the doors hissed shut.
—He doesn’t take Scottish notes, I said to the women. One of them whipped out an English tenner but the bus drove off. You could see they were disgusted. One of them used to live in Scotland, she said, Kirkintilloch, she said, no wonder the Scotch hate us, she said, with people like that, she said. And that’s when they chipped in, these three women, and from their own purses turned my Scottish tenner into five pound coins and a load of smash for the drink machines in A hall.
I should’ve expected the search. Arms up and some guy patting me down. Trouser legs. They deprive us of our rights, our sons and daughters, when they get the jail. Sure enough I used the pound coin to lock my stuff in a wee glass locker that reminded me of Snow White in her glass coffin. Then they sent me into a yard to a guy with a black Labrador.
—Move forward and stand on one of the yellow squares please sir.
I did. He brought the dog up and of course it sniffed my balls right away. My dogs do that. My instinct was to clap but the handler must’ve sensed it cos he said,
—Keep your hands by your sides please sir.
He was Scottish. I wondered if the guy who answered their phones could understand him.
—Been here before sir?
—Make your way up those stairs. You’ll come to a room with some seats. Wait till someone comes and gets you.
—Cheers mate, I said but there was no reply. He stood with the dog in such a way I thought he’d been a long time in military.
At the top of the stairs a screw was waiting and he led me in. It was bright mainly because all the cons had sunny red boiler suits. I seen Dan five tables away with a big smile.
—Da, he shouted. The tension in my chest came back but I battered it down and walked easy, like it was McDonalds on a Saturday afternoon. I sat down. He looked better than I’d seen him for years.
—What’s it like in here?
—It was boring at first but I’m a cleaner now.
—Fucksakes Dan – you’ve got a job?
—Aye – it was twenty-three hour a day bang up but not now.
When he said that, I remembered guy after guy, through the years, saying it. Twenty-three hour bang up. I’d even said it myself. It was a language. It was a badge. It was a sign for a whole other culture. Twenty-three hour bang up. Sometimes it was lock up. These are the things I thought as Dan told me about his job.
—I’m up at seven, he said, —Out dishing out the grub, eat as much as I like, then cleaning all day, back at night to my cell.
—What’s that like?
—My cell? Bed, telly Xbox.
—Xbox? I can’t even afford an Xbox.
—It’s a canter Da.
That was the last thing I wanted to hear. I wanted him to be having a hard time. Never want to step foot in a jail again. But he read my face.
—I don’t mean I actually like it Da. It was shite at first, but since the Manchester boys got me the job it’s been easier. Means I don’t think about getting out all the time. I just go from day to day.
I don’t know if that was true or just for my sake. He told me he’d been befriended by these lifers who had recommended him for a job. I could see his thin ice cos I’d been out walking on it myself a long time. He was saying he was going to stop drinking, get a job, sort his life out. But he was saying all the right things with the wrong heart.
There was nothing I could say. I made that visit as entertaining as I could. Told him crazy stories. About my brother’s wife dying with the drink an him not noticing for three days. How mad the funeral was with all the old battered faces of friends and enemies turning up from the past. Got him laughing. There were times I forgot where we were. We could’ve been in McDonalds. Except his hands were trying to wash themselves as we spoke. It’s funny how much you can say with your hands. I asked if his mother had been in.
—How does she take it?
—Does she cry?
—No. Ye fuckin joking? I told her on the phone. See if your maw cries, ye get a right slagging for it. They’ve got to be told, the maws, not to cry.
—What if you Da cries? I said, and we burst the tension of that room with our laughter.
—That’s the worst thing that can happen, he said, still laughing.
When they hit the buzzer I asked if it was okay to hug him.
—It is Da, he said, —But if ye do they’ll give me a strip search when I go back through there.
And he nodded to some vague place beyond the bars. I said goodbye but didn’t say love you. I didn’t know if that would get him a hard time. It was a hard thing looking cool as I left. I wondered if I was feeling worse than him.
Back in the car the dregs of the coffee was still warm. I drank it looking at the jail through falling snow. When I drove out of the car park the bus was in front of me. The same driver was indicating to pull out onto the road. I flashed him out and, as he swung round, he looked at me with a half finished wave and a look of recognition on his face.
—Roll on Independence, I said. And he was obliterated by the fog of my breath.
© Des Dillon 2012
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Des Dillon was born in Coatbridge, Lanarkshire, Scotland, in 1960, and read English at Strathclyde University. A former teacher, he now writes for television, stage and radio and has taught Creative Writing at the Arvon Foundation. He is the author of seven novels, including Me and Ma Gal (1995), which chronicles a day in the lives of two best friends, Derek and Gal, set against the Coatbridge landscape of slagpits and steelworks, was shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award; and most recently My Epileptic Lurcher (2008); and An Experiment in Compassion (2011). He is also the author of the short story collections, The Big Empty: A Collection of Short Stories (1997) and They Scream When You Kill Them (2007). His novel Six Black Candles (2002) was originally written as a play for Birds of Paradise Theatre Company in 1999, and went on to premiere at The Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh in 2004. It has since been translated and published in Russia.
In 1998, a short film of his novel Duck premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival and in 2003 his play Lockerbie 103 went on national tour. Singin' I'm No a Billy He's a Tim (2005) won critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2005 and has toured Scotland and Ireland since. It continues to be extremely popular with both audiences and critics.
Des Dillon currently lives in Galloway. He also performs stand-up comedy.