Muttering under his breath, Jack shoved away his plate, the food untouched, “For Christ’’s sake, Charlie, not again, didn’t you learn the last time?” His chair scraping the tiled floor of the dining hall, he scrambled to his feet. He’d catch his eye, he might stop him making a fool of himself even now.
“MARSHALL!” A parade-ground voice bellowed at him from somewhere to his left, its echo reverberating around the hall. “Sit down when the governor’s speaking, you ignorant shit.”
Looking even more harassed than usual, the governor glanced at Jack over the top of his half-moon glasses and, recognising his orderly, gave him a quick smile. “Yes, Mr Marshall, let’s do as the Chief says, shall we, there’s a good chap.” Then, returning to his prepared speech, he tried to look stern. “Now, men,” he said, “I’m taking this spate of suicides very seriously. I’m not having any more of them, not in my prison. They’re to stop right now, d’y’hear.”
After two years as his orderly, two years of looking after this tall, unworldly man even now teetering precariously on the tubular steel chair in front of a horde of grinning, hopeful faces, Jack’s initial indifference towards him had matured into a protective benevolence. The man’s genuine paternalism, the Victorian pattern of speech that was his without affectation, seemed to Jack just two of the many endearing features possessed by the senior governor of Uppandown Prison. But to the other inmates and to the majority of prison staff, they were anything but. Charles Ambrose Dixon irritated them almost to distraction.
Jack did as he’d been told and lowered his gaze. At least he didn’t have to watch. And he’d try not to listen. He put his hands over his ears. Then he thought of the last time the inmates had been assembled for one of the governor’s homilies. Good God, that one had turned into a riot, the dining hall wrecked. Refurbishment had cost the Home Office a packet. He sniffed, and caught the stink of fresh paint even with all the food smells around; another riot so soon and Charlie Dixon’s career in the Prison Service would be finished for good – with less than ten months to go to retirement. Then Henschel – Henschel the hateful Hun – would take charge. Jack shuddered, what a disaster that would be! The very thought!
The governor was in full spate now; prepared speech abandoned, he waved it expansively. “So if any of you coves are thinking of topping yourselves you can chuck the idea right now – right here and now I say.” The chair on which he stood wobbled alarmingly and just for a moment the hopes of his audience looked as if they were about to be gratified. But, arms windmilling, he regained his balance to continue unabashed. “So I’m giving you fair warning, one more attempt and it will be the worse for all of you. I don’t like to make threats, but the next man to commit suicide will lose all his privileges, every single one of them: home leave, visits, even free association. D’y’hear, any more of this nonsense and I’ll tighten this prison until it squeaks – until it squeaks, d’y’hear?”
But they hadn’t heard, not his last sentence anyway, it had been drowned by laughter, loud and prolonged. It was soon followed by tumuluous applause initiated by none other than the very prison officer who had ordered Jack to sit down. A moment later, fingers to his mouth, the same man was to let out a long piercing whistle. It was immediately imitated by half those present.
They were all on their feet now, including Jack. Charlie may be a fool but he doesn’t deserve this, he thought. He then watched helplessly as the governor did as most of his audience had been hoping and fell heavily when the chair on which he’d been standing slid out from under him. Jack rushed to his side and helping him to his feet, pleaded with him to leave the room. “Come on, Charlie, let’s get you out of here.”
The governor scowled at him; he didn’t approve of all this familiarity and his orderly knew it, he’d told him often enough. He said so as he dusted down his trousers. “And I can’t leave while all this bad behaviour is going on, you know that too.” He advanced on the jeering mob. “Sit down, all of you. Sit, I say.” It was unintentional but he could have been talking to his dogs.
Prison officers, serious now, followed his example. Prowling the big room, they quelled the disorder, weaker men first.
Very young and new to the job, Ellen Brough, the Education Department’s administrative assistant, was unsure about her next question; lack of enthusiasm for initiatives put forward by the boss might give a poor impression at this stage of her career. But his latest idea was a waste of tax-payers’ money surely. “Where will we find a teacher of Welsh in Norfolk, Mr Tudor?” There were only six Welsh inmates, two of them black, and none of them had shown the slightest inclination to learn the language when the subject was brought to their attention. To her mind, admittedly that of a mere admin. assistant, lessons in Welsh seemed an expensive luxury.
“We’ll advertise, Ellen, in the local free press. Our teacher doesn’t need to hold any formal qualifications and even a prison can look inviting at almost fourteen pounds an hour, especially if you’re on the dole.” He grinned displaying a gap in his upper jaw. He’d forgotten his dentures again.
Ellen shook her head. “But nobody wants to learn Welsh, Mr Tudor, there’s been no response at all from the men.”
“It’s part of our heritage, Ellen, yours and mine, our British heritage. We should be able to offer it on our curriculum.” He moved closer. “And, please, call me Duncan.”
“But you’re Welsh and you’ve managed without it. If we can find a teacher, will you be joining the class?” She backed away from him putting the filing cabinet between them.
Mr Tudor looked disappointed. “I’m afraid not,” he said, “I just haven’t the time these days – a man in my position, you know.”
Ellen nodded. She knew all right; if he wasn’t away on so many visits to other prisons – pointless, unnecessary social visits from which nothing constructive ever seemed to materialise – he’d have plenty of time to learn Welsh if he wanted to. And if he spent less time in the pub at lunchtime. Yes, she knew all right.
It was eight-fifteen and the part-time teachers were starting to arrive. The first was Mr Ojibango. A large Nigerian, he seemed a very pleasant man but Ellen dreaded being alone with him. At least, he seemed to be a very pleasant man but she couldn’t be sure because she didn’t understand a word he said. Yet he purported to teach English. Ellen had asked Mr Tudor about it but his answer had confused her.
“Oh I know he’s difficult to understand,” he’d said, “but that’s not why he’s here.” Suddenly coy, he’d explained. “Like me with our Welsh prisoners, he’s a good role model for the black inmates. We’re lucky to have a black teacher.”
Being a mere administrative assistant, and only eighteen at that, Ellen had thought it patronising in the extreme to employ a black teacher no-one could understand – both to Mr Ojibango himself, now sitting opposite and smiling his pleasant smile, and to the black inmates of Uppandown Prison. But she kept it to herself, she could be wrong. She returned his smile warmly then shuffled a sheaf of papers. She felt sorry for him until she remembered the fourteen pounds an hour.
It was Friday – ‘AIDS day’. A morning lecture on AIDS/ HIV to which all prisoners had right of access at least once during their sentence, and it was Robert’s task to provide it. Robert – ‘Call me Bobby’ – Nixon, forty, coming on twenty-five, gave Ellen his usual hug before adjusting his pony-tail. None of the other male teachers hugged her, she wouldn’t have liked it if they had, but with Robert it didn’t matter. There was an innocence about him, a naivety she couldn’t explain. Once she’d met him in town and, much to her consternation, he’d hugged her in front of boyfriend Alex. He’d even kissed her. Yet Alex had laughed! Usually, Alex -ultra-jealous Alex – would threaten to punch heads if another man so much as looked her way – yet he’d laughed. And Robert had kissed her on the mouth! It was Robert’s gift, she supposed, it must be, he was such a friendly man. Right now he was smiling at Mr Ojibango. But they’d never met, had they. One of Mr Ojibango’s lessons had been rescheduled and this was the first Fiday he’d ever worked at Uppandown so he and Robert had never been introduced. Ellen did so now and, after the men had shaken hands Robert joined Mr Ojibango by the office window. But something was wrong. They were still holding hands but Mr Ojibango had stopped smiling. Ellen didn’t understand men, not yet anyway, but she’d keep on trying, they couldn’t be all that much different, surely.