It wasn’t such an earth-shattering experience as I thought it might be, the day I was banged up for eighteen months. The judge who sentenced me gave me a stern lecture on the abuse of trust and the sanctity of other peoples’ property, then said the public had a right to protection from people like me. I thought the ould fucker was going to give me five years, so the eighteen months came as a bit of relief. He also said I should be deported at the end of my sentence, which upset me more than the deprivation of my freedom. The bird I could do standing on my head, but…I had been slung out of a few places in my time, but never a country.
The two months I had spent on remand in Brixton had been easy-going, but Wandsworth was something else. Dark and foreboding, it was a Dickensian shambles of a place. ‘Get those clothes off…get cleaned up…’ the reception screw shouted as we filed past him, filtering us through a disinfecting process that was similar to sheep-dipping. Some of the dirtier inmates were poked and prodded with long-handled loofahs as they shuffled along the line.
Afterwards, I was paraded in front of the prison doctor, who felt my pecker before passing me fit for general duties. All my worldly possessions - one Timex watch and ten shillings and sixpence- were then sealed in a grubby brown envelope and my name and number written across it in spidery letters. TERENCE O’BYRNE – and they didn’t even get that right. I was then issued with my prison kit. A couple of John Players - which I had concealed in my hair - slipped to the reception con, ensured that the clothes fit me. It was only when the heavy steel door to my cell slammed shut that it hit home I wouldn’t be seeing daylight for some time to come.
Prison mornings are not for the faint -hearted. Doors kicked and slammed open, steel landings echoing to the ring of hob-nailed boots, yells from every direction: ’Right you lot, slop out! The wing I was billeted on had four landings, each with its own recess for getting rid of the shit and piss accumulated during the night. The stench was unbearable. It lingered for hours - long after the cleaning crews had done their bit. I thanked God I was on the topmost landing; the contents of some of the pots never made it to the sinks, but were tipped over the railings into the void below.
No inmate was allowed to keep a razor blade in his cell. Each morning the landing screw issued a blade from the folder he carried with him. If you were lucky, it might be the one you used the previous day.
The cell housed a steel bunk bed along one wall and a single frame bed along the other. You weren’t allowed to lie on the bunk bed during the day, and the single bed had to be dismantled and stood against the cell wall each morning. The bed linen had to be folded in a certain way, and if the screw didn’t like your handiwork, he tipped it on to the floor and made you re-do it. There were three small lockers, three chairs and a single table.
Each prisoner was allocated one pot, one plastic jug, one mug, plastic cutlery, one razor, one pair of boots, one pair of slippers, two pairs of socks, two vests, two shirts, one jacket, one tie, one soap dish, one toothbrush, and a copy of the prison rules.
Outside each cell was fixed a small card rack containing information on its occupants. Name, prison number, work category, religion and length of sentence. It soon became apparent to me why the place was such a shit hole: It was inhabited mostly by dossers, tramps and petty thieves, all short -term occupants, who, when released, did their best to get back inside again.
I soon discovered that tobacco was the currency the prison ran on. All those little extras that made life bearable - that extra pair of socks, the jacket that fitted, yesterday’s newspaper, a not-so-stained copy of Playboy - they all had their price. Every Friday the money you earned could be spent in the prison shop, and items such as tobacco, soap and toothpaste could be purchased. You could buy up to a half ounce of tobacco, and this was the first item you purchased - whether you smoked or not. You could then sell it or trade it for something else, gamble with it or, if you were hard enough, become a tobacco baron. I usually bought soap or toothpaste with what was left over, the prison soap being vile and the toothpaste only fit for scouring your piss pot.
In due course, I was allocated work in the mailbag shop; a long, narrow workshop where the seating arrangements resembled those in a school. One screw prowled the centre aisle, whilst another sat on a platform overseeing everything. We weren’t allowed to smoke during work, and the mobile screw’s main function appeared to be to shout ‘one off, Mr Beasley’ to his seated companion each time one of us requested permission to go to the bog. We weren’t supposed to smoke in there either, but they didn’t seem too bothered about it. I thought it hilarious that they had to address each other as ‘mister’.
My companion during working hours was Derek, and it was only natural that we should talk. Or to be more accurate, Derek did. Non-stop. About trucks. Big trucks. Enormous bloody trucks. Fucking boring trucks. He expected the rest of the world to have an orgasm when he talked about his Scannia. At first I thought Scannia was his wife. After a while I perfected a nodding technique, which allowed me to concentrate on more important matters. Like how much bird I had left to do: two months on remand…a third off for good behaviour…that still left another ten months. I couldn’t take ten months of Derek and his jabber. Then I read on the notice-board of a welding course in a nick up the country near Norwich, so I put my name down for it. A few weeks later I learnt that my application was successful.
HMP Mousehold was classed as semi-open. The main block didn’t look much different than Wandsworth; a big, rambling, decaying construction, but there was another section known as The Huts. These were Nissan huts, each holding twenty in a dormitory environment. Each was self-sufficient, the occupants being responsible for cleaning and maintaining it. We fetched our grub from the main hall, and apart from roll-call each morning and evening, were left mainly to our own devices.
Our hut was reserved for those on the welding course. Strangeways, Barlinni, Camp Hill, they were all represented. Most were English; there was a sprinkling of Taffys and Jocks, and myself the only Irishman. There were no Blacks, which surprised me considering the numbers I had seen in Brixton and Wandsworth.
I was known as Paddy despite my repeated attempts to furnish my real name. In the end I gave up. The best response to a taunt of ‘what’s a thick Mick like you doing on a welding course?’ was to shout back ‘the same as you, you scabby Limey c--t’.
Jet Lag was one of the characters on the course. A recidivist of more than twenty years standing, his presence was the result of a prank. He had applied for a gardening course, but not being able to read and write too well, had asked somebody else to fill in the form for him. ‘Jesus Paddy’, he said to me one day, ‘what do I want to learn welding for?’ The authorities didn’t care one way or the other; a welding course he had put down for, a welding course he would do.
Lefty, whose bunk was next to mine, was doing two years for hijacking a lorry-load of shoes. Unfortunately for him, the consignment consisted entirely of left shoes, something which caused much amusement amongst the rest of us.
‘Is there a big one-legged population in Bethnal Green, then, Lefty?’ ‘Found yourself a niche in the market, Lefty?’ ‘The Old Bill reckoned you didn’t have a leg to stand on’…
For my own part, I found myself up before the Governor within days of my arrival. My appeal against my deportation had been turned down. I had hoped that common sense might prevail; I mean, what was the point of teaching me a trade then chucking me out? But bureaucracy knows no logic.
‘However’, the Governor waffled on, ‘it’s no concern of this establishment that an expulsion order has been served on you. Our job is to see that you complete your sentence here. You will then be released in the normal manner. What happens after that is up to the appropriate authorities…’
Fuck me, I thought… would it be too much to hope that the matter might slip their minds altogether?
Life in the dormitories was a million miles from prison life in many ways. The dreaded slopping-out routine for one thing, the constant banging of doors, the turn of a key in the lock. In certain respects it was like being in the army - if you kept the rules the screws never bothered you much.
Yet when the lights went out at night, and you lay there looking out at the lit-up walls with their coils of razor wire on top, you were forced to admit that your dreams of freedom were just an illusion. I would watch the twinkling stars overhead, see the glare from the city of Norwich hanging like a shroud above the wire, and imagine the hordes of people out there. All drinking, fighting, making love, living life unfettered. And I felt a lump in my throat.
Then I pictured Tessa lying in Larry’s arms, could almost smell the betrayal, and somehow it didn’t seem too bad where I was. I killed them all in my fantasies. A thousand times over. Tessa I saved the worst fate for; she had made a fool of me and that was hard to forget. Sometimes I thought of Fergus, deep in the cold and lonely soil, his eyes open and reproachful.
I hardly thought of my parents at all; didn’t know if they knew where I was, didn’t really care. I received no letters, I wrote none. I retreated into a world of imagination. In reality, I was lying on my bunk staring at something on the ceiling, but in my mind I was lying on the beach in San Tropez, or trekking across the Arizona desert. Years later, when I read Papillion, I was able to understand how its author, Henri Charriere, managed to survive the French penal colonies. He wasn’t really spending his years in a rat-infested dungeon that got flooded at every high tide; he was out walking the world of his imagination.
When I wasn’t in foreign lands, I was learning to weld. I had no desire to pursue it as a trade - it was just something to pass the time - but our tutor had other ideas. Day after day, week after week, he kept us at it, so that by the end of the course even Jet Lag could fuse two bits of metal together.
At the end of the course I was assigned to one of the tradesmen screws.
‘Done a plumbing?’ He asked me the first morning.
I shook my head. We had been assigned to the screw quarters outside the gate, and I was busy re-discovering that long-legged women in short skirts were real, not just images I had wanked myself silly over for the past ten months.
‘Well, never mind. Once you’ve done one it will be a piece of cake…’
It was too. I discovered that all we were doing was renewing the taps on the sinks and baths in each flat, something that took very little time and effort. Not that we seemed to be in any great hurry.
‘Don’t get carried away, lad. This has to last us at least a month…’
There was no better man for making easy work look hard. Hadn’t I years of practice…
The arrangement was that I would do upstairs and he downstairs, so I was left more or less to my own devices. I began to take books with me to put down the time. If I wasn’t going to work myself to death, I might as well learn something. It was better than wanking myself to death I concluded, thinking of all the starched hankies under my pillow.
I was alternating between reading Borstal Boy and The Ginger Man when it suddenly clicked what had been niggling at me. Barney Berry, one of the characters in Donleavy’s book was none other than Behan himself!. I speculated on whether they had known each other; Behan rolling in and out of places such as McDaid’s or Mary the Whore’s, Donleavy following along making notes…
Or maybe he was rolling too… Sebastian Dangerfield….now who was he based on?
I couldn’t help but admire Behan. All his life he had been a drunkard and a loudmouth - but he could write. And he had the gift of the gab.
Reporter: ‘What do you think of Canada, Mr Behan?’
’Ah, ‘twill be grand when it’s finished’.
‘And what do you think of the Irish?’
’Ah sure, God love them, if ‘twas raining soup they’d be out with knifes and forks’.
Maybe I liked him because he was working class. A house painter that had seen the gutter, had lain in the gutter, and hadn’t been afraid to write about it. His description of the Dublin slums was something I could relate to. I had seen poverty too, albeit in a rural environment. But when it came down to it, there wasn’t much difference between stealing turnips from a market barrow or a farmer’s field. I found his book about his time in Borstal riveting reading.
Between the bouts of working and reading there was plenty of fags and coffee to be had. I got the impression that some of the women liked having me around the house. It was just that little bit…risky. Maybe it turned them on; there were sometimes glimpses of thighs and stocking-tops, or a blouse undone a button more than was necessary. Let’s face it, most of their husbands were miserable bastards, and they were stuck in this hole just as much as any of us prisoners - with little hope of remission.
I was trying to crack the seal on a stubborn pipe beneath the washbasin one morning when I noticed her standing there. The woman of the house; looking down at me. She had a cup of coffee in one hand, the other was resting on her hip.
‘Do you know how to use that King Dick?’ she suddenly asked.
The monkey wrench fell from my grasp and I could only nod.
She knelt down beside me and placed a hand on my thigh.
‘That’s alright then. Only my husband hasn’t got a clue about…things like that’.
She knew about King Dicks alright. Before I could say a word she had unzipped me and was squatting over me, her hands gripping the edge of the basin to give her leverage. It didn’t take too long.
The next morning - and most subsequent ones - I returned to the flat for what we now called my ‘elevenses’. The screw, I learned, was also occupied. She told me he was conducting affairs with several of the women. I never found out whom though, because he never talked about it. It was as if our sessions with the women never took place; he showed me the flats we were to work on each morning and that were it.
I sometimes thought of him as screw that did a bit of plumbing, but mostly it was as a plumber who did a bit of screwing. I could see now why he wanted to drag the job out. Afterwards, I wondered why the wives indulged in this little game of theirs. I didn’t flatter myself that I was the only one singled out; there were other gangs - carpenters and painters - and I was sure they got similar privileges. It had to be because of boredom; it was a dreary fucking hole if you didn’t have to be there; ‘having it off’ with a prisoner was their way of bringing a bit of excitement into a drab existence.
Christmas, normally one of the loneliest times in prison, didn’t bother me at all. Most of my Christmas’s since leaving home had been shitty anyway. Seeing all that happiness on the faces of others made me want to puke. There was a festive air about the prison; the screws even locked you up with a smile. It amused me to see slices of turkey, Brussels sprouts, roast potatoes and plum pudding all heaped together on one steel tray. But not so much as to make me want to ape Jet Lag, who alternated a forkful of meat and gravy with one of pudding. There was even some hooch, brewed from ingredients spirited out of the kitchen. A small glass of it immobilised Lefty and had him howling like a dog on the floor. After that we diluted it.
I even got religion for the day; attending Mass. Religion was optional here. Not like Wandsworth - where I tried to have atheist written on my cell card. ‘You have to have a religion’, the landing screw had insisted, so I put down Jehovah Witness. This meant I was effectively excused religious duties, there being no service for this particular sect. Instead, I took a perverse satisfaction at watching Songs of Praise on Sunday nights, following the camera as it panned over the unsuspecting audience. I would select the most angelic face I could find and invest it with the vilest characteristics I could dream up.
The highlight of Christmas day was the concert, put on by a bunch of local do-gooders. It was beyond me that people were willing to give up their boozing and celebrating to come and entertain us.
‘They must be facking mad’, said Lefty, who, like most of us, had put in an appearance only in the hope of seeing a bit of tit or leg on display.
Soon it was New Year and before I knew it I was on my last week. I hadn’t really thought much about freedom before, but now that it was staring me in the face I became apprehensive. What would I do? Where would I go? I felt no different about life than when I came in, so what had it taught me? I was wiser perhaps, but I felt no better for the experience.
Was I a hardened criminal? I doubted it. Hardened criminals were a bit of a myth in Mousehold as far as I could see. The system weeded out the real hard cases and sent them to where they could act like James Cagney. Most of the cons I was acquainted with were like myself - lonely and mixed up. They missed their wives, their girlfriends, their families. Some got ‘Dear- John’ letters and cracked up. Sometimes they didn’t get them and still cracked up. And sometimes the screws didn’t wait for them to crack up, but banged them up in chokey before giving them the letter. Some were like Jet Lag; pathetic no-hopers who couldn’t make up their minds where the real world lay - inside or outside. Me? I had no doubts. I wasn’t planning to come back.
The afternoon before my release I said goodbye to all my friends. I was then taken to reception to return all my prison belongings. In return, I received my Timex watch, ten shillings and sixpence, a travel warrant and my own clothes. To be fair to the prison, they had cleaned and pressed my dark suit and cream shirt, so that I was leaving cleaner than when I arrived. I felt nearly human again as I was taken to the holding area to await my freedom next morning.
At seven am the gates clanged shut behind the group of us that been freed. Loved ones, friends who had been holding a dawn vigil, surged forward to kiss and hug us. Two burly coppers greeted me. They didn’t hug or kiss me, but re-arrested me and told me I was being escorted to Heathrow for deportation.
It had never occurred to me before, but I realised I was afraid of flying. I had never seen the inside of a plane before; all I knew was that passengers climbed steep steps, disappeared inside those enormous bellies, and that was it. For all I knew they could be eaten alive once inside.
Well It was too fucking late now, I was flying whether I liked it or not.
My two companions, seated either side of me in this greasy spoon, were there to ensure that I did. Deported, slung out on my ear, the ignominy of it. I had done my time, paid my debt to society, why couldn’t they leave it at that? What had I ever done to England to deserve the big boot in the arse? And why couldn’t it be by boat? It was good enough for Brendan Behan.
‘D’you want a sandwich Paddy?’ one of the coppers asked me. His heavy blue tweed overcoat contrasted sharply with my own lightweight suit. I could see the fields through the window, grey with frost. Jesus, my knackers were about to drop off.
‘What county are we in?’ I asked, washing down the greasy bacon with sweet tea.
‘Bedfordshire’, was the reply.
I looked around. Flat, barren land as far as the eye could see.
‘It must be the arsehole of England then’. I laughed at their proximity to me. Any nearer and they’d both be sitting on my lap. ‘Afraid I might make a run for it? Where would I hide? Under a stone?’
They both laughed, and then the older one took out a packet of Embassy and offered them round.
‘Only doin’ our job Pat. We have to make sure you get on that plane. We don’t want no slip-ups, see?’
I took several deep drags. A decent smoke for a change. There hadn’t been many of them in the past year.
‘What age are you, Paddy?’ It was the younger one’s turn now.
‘Got any family?’
‘I had a brother but he’s dead’. Poor Fergus.
‘’I expect your mum and dad’ll be glad to see you’.
I nodded, but inside I knew it wasn’t true. I hadn’t spoken to my old man for more than five years. And my mum, well…since Fergus died I had no idea how she might be feeling towards me.
‘What devilish crime did you commit? It must be something big to get you chucked out…’
I shrugged. ‘I robbed a few pubs is all’ A few thousand quid I could do with right now.
He shook his head. Couldn’t understand it, he said.
‘Still, you must have it stashed away, eh?’
I laughed. ‘I gave it all to William Hill’. I had too. Every fucking penny.
‘Gambling? So that’s what got you into this mess?’
I nodded. ‘Fast women and slow horses’. I chuckled at that. It was a throwaway line Jack Doyle used. Jack had fallen from a great height since his heyday when ninety thousand came to see him fight at The White City. And ninety thousand more outside, if you could believe Jack. He had rubbed shoulders with Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable and Errol Flynn, and bedded many of the Hollywood starlets, capping it off by marrying Movita, the Mexican actress. Now he was to be found singing for his supper in the dingy clubs and pubs of Shepherds Bush and Notting Hill.
Jack wasn’t averse to putting the squeeze on someone for a few bob when he was skint - And this was frequently. His usual method was to grab you in a ‘friendly’ bear hug in the gents of the current watering hole and ask you for the loan of a few quid. Bearing in mind the size and strength of Jack it wasn’t wise to decline. It was whilst in the grip of one such hug that he passed on his’ fast women and slow horses’, advice to me. With me the problem was mostly the latter, however; the only fast woman around was Tessa…
The older copper stubbed his butt on his saucer. ‘Here’s some free advice, lad. Keep your money in your pocket. Only one lot get rich from gambling - and it’s not mugs like you. My uncle gambled everything he owned - and quite a lot that he didn’t - and he wound up jumping off the Mersey Bridge….’
I had heard it all before. Same song, different singer. There was a long-playing record of it spinning permanently inside my head. Still, it passed the time till we got to Heathrow. Boarding time soon came round, where the sight of my expulsion order soon wiped the welcome off the stewardess’s face.
‘Don’t come back Pat’, said the one whose uncle had jumped.
‘No fucking way’, I replied.