Revisiting

Juliette would be fifteen tomorrow; that’s such a milestone for a girl. Her birthday’s been at the back of my mind but tonight, running Celeste’s bath, thoughts crept in about how it would feel if she were still alive – what she would be doing, whether she’d be excited, what we would have bought her, whether there would be a party – all the normal things. And it feels total rubbish that we’re arguing about what cake to make, and who will buy the flowers for her grave and balloons that we’ll release with our messages instead. Tonight it feels poor to have these rather than some full-on teenage celebration. I’m feeling sorry for myself, sorry for us and sorry for her that she had no time at all to live. I’m sorry for everything we’ve all missed.

I know this will pass, perspective will be restored and I’ll be back to ‘looking on the bright side’ soon. This is self-indulgent I know, and that’s the reason I’m here rather than on my other blog. I always feel like this at some point around these times, but this year is ten years. Ten bloody years, when she was only here for five. She’s been gone almost twice as long as we had her, and I hate that. Are these days ever not going to be hard?

Meanwhile in the spirit of I forget what, I’m visiting a different prison tomorrow to talk about more teaching. They suggested the date, and at the time I thought it would be a good thing to do on Juliette’s birthday; a positive distraction. I didn’t think I’d come unstuck. I just hope I can hold it together when I’m there.

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Keys

It’s stating the obvious to point out there are a lot of locked doors in prison, and that therefore keys are a big deal.  Members of staff wear a belt on which hangs a radio, with their keys attached to a long chain. Each room and corridor is locked by at least one door and often a heavy, barred gate as well.  There is no freedom of movement around the prison whatsoever.

For the moment I am a keyless visitor.  Each time I go to the prison I am put through various identity checks in the lobby and given a pass, before finally being allowed into the glass airlock that leads into the prison proper. Without keys, in order to get to where I am going on that visit a member of staff is obliged to meet me at this point.  From there we pass through a locked door into the first prison yard.

As a visitor I’m a happy anomaly, but it seems to me that in the wider prison population the possession of keys or the lack of them is a potent symbol. There cannot be a clearer line between those that are free, and those without freedom.

In previous posts I’ve talked about how during classes the thought of crimes the men may have committed is all but banished from my mind, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the suggestion that this is naivety on my part. I know sometimes I’m a bit too inclined to look for the good in people and situations. I suppose at some point I’ve come to the conclusion that life is just too short and simply too glorious to waste time on pessimism. Surviving my daughter’s death has stripped life to the most important elements.

It’s definitely changed how I feel about relationships. I was shocked at how overnight I became intolerant of artifice, and of people who spend too much energy on the trivial. I’m sure that makes me worse company – certainly my address book has become much thinner over the past ten years, but I’m happy with that. The people there now really count.

I’ve deviated, but I wanted to make the point that I’m certain I would not be volunteering in a prison at the moment if Juliette were still alive, because I think I was one of the people whose company I now avoid. If choosing to spend time with prisoners, to try and light a creative fuse with men so many in society and possibly even their own circle have given up on makes me naive, then I suppose I am. But we’re all the same flesh, blood and spirit. I can’t listen to a prisoner’s story, told with all the width and breadth of human love and suffering, and think of him only in terms of the crime he may have committed.  It’s just not possible.

The prison environment doesn’t let you forget completely however. At the end of a class a few weeks ago I was chatting to an inmate called Yan that I blogged about here He looks like a tough man, but he writes a lot of poetry which he sends to his Mum and his girlfriend.  I’ve forgotten the context of our conversation but he was telling me a story in which he took the small dog of a former girlfriend for a walk on a busy seafront.  He was on his own, and when the dog ran off he had to call it back. Unfortunately for him and his tough guy image, the dog was called ‘Fifibelle.’

We were both laughing at his anecdote when an officer unlocked the classroom door. Yan immediately had to stand with the other men to have a metal detector run all over him before afternoon lock up. As I’ve mentioned before, this procedure is to ensure no metal objects are removed from the education block which could be turned into weapons.  Right there in that moment was the divide between prisoner and free person. It’s stupid to say, but I found myself wanting to look away in embarrassment for him, and the others with whom I’d spent the previous two and a half hours chatting as ‘equals.’

I wasn’t able to get to the prison for a couple of weeks after this and was looking forward to seeing Yan (as well as the other men) but when I arrived, Michael told me that Yan had been ‘shipped out.’ ‘Shipped out’ is prison speak for being moved to another jail. The prisoner isn’t given much notice of this happening and often aren’t able to say goodbye to other inmates and staff. It seems a bit unfair from my outsider’s perspective, but I’m sure there are good operational reasons for moves happening in this way. I was genuinely sorry not to have been able to say goodbye and wish him luck, and that I would probably never see him again.

‘Be friendly, but not their friend,’ I was told by a wise lady who has worked for many years in the prison system. I’m sure it’s good advice, but the Pollyanna in me or perhaps simple inexperience makes it difficult always to keep this line clear. Besides as I keep saying, only by treating them as I would anyone outside can I engage fully in the creative stuff we do.

This all came up when I was at the prison last week.  Michael had received a letter – the first he’d been sent by a prisoner – and it was from Yan. He told Michael how grateful he was to have met him, and how much he’d got from his classes. Michael, he said, had given him back his self-belief after his failure in education before. Yan went on to say that he hoped perhaps when he was released they might meet up, because he had no intention of coming back to prison.

Standing in the classroom with about ten minutes to go before mass move (when all prisoners are en-route to classes or work) I burst into tears. The thing is, no prisoner has to be grateful, and no teacher has to be affected emotionally by someone they’ve taught.  A few simple words in a letter shone a light on the vastness of the human spirit.

Michael had to wipe his eyes too, but we pulled ourselves together – laughing at how pathetic we were, and we shuffled bits of poetry I’d brought in for the class.  The sad thing – although I think I understand the reasons – is that Michael can’t reply to the letter. He sent a verbal message via another prisoner to say thank you to Yan, and to wish him luck. That has to be enough. Be friendly, but not their friend. When you have the privilege of keys, true friendship is dangerous.

The men arrived and we sat down to get on with our class.  Michael started by ‘complaining’ loudly about some pencils he’d brought in that had gone missing the previous day.  ‘Do you know, lads?’ he said, ‘I think there may be a thief amongst us…’ The men love him because this teasing is a form of respect, and he makes them laugh. Because of this, they want to do well in his lessons.

We were looking at poetry again, and I was a bit nervous because the last time I’d tried it their response was lukewarm. Previously I’d brought in poems that I love by Rudyard Kipling, Maya Angelou, Siegfried Sassoon and John Hegley, among others. This time I found poems written by prisoners from the UK and the USA. It was a forehead-slapping moment to see how they picked up the poems and read them, choosing their favourites and why – debating whether a poem was poem if it didn’t rhyme, etc.  They could relate to the emotions expressed and when I gave them a sheet of poem prompts, most of them couldn’t wait to get started with their own words.

So, we had poems of regret at the heartache caused to a mother, poems of quiet determination to stay on the right side of the law after leaving prison, a funny poem, yet which was threaded with pathos at the writer’s wry admission that his whole life had been a lie, and a couple of beautiful, heart-shaking love poems.

One of the love poems was written by Sam, about his girlfriend, who had recently died in a car crash.  It spoke of how when he came to die, he would look for her in heaven. If it happened that she was not there, he would go to hell just to be with her again.  He gave me a copy which I would love to reproduce here, but I know I can’t.

After mass move I stayed for a chat with Michael and we talked about how the class had gone. ‘Do you know,’ he said, ‘from the way they look, if I met any of these guys for the first time on the outside I’d be nervous.’  It’s true that some of them do, unsurprisingly, look like they’re off the photo wall in Crimewatch. But you hear their stories, feel their emotions, and they’re just people; albeit flawed people, but who amongst us is not?

When life surprises you

Life is a funny business. When I met an awkward Frenchman at a party twenty years ago, could I have imagined our marriage and five children – one of whom would leave us too soon? I think it’s probably just as well we’ve no idea what curveballs will come our way. It’s not as if you can prepare yourself.

Yet when the proverbial hits the fan, mostly we keep going. I used to hate the saying, “Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”  It was said to me just too often after Juliette died. What the speaker wouldn’t realise was that I wanted it to kill me.  If my reward for bearing my daughter’s death was strength, then I chose to be weak.

With almost ten years to percolate the fact I had no choice in the matter, I’m grateful now for the strength I have. It is hard to convey how surviving the worst of experiences gives you a quiet and possibly misplaced sense of invincibility. Misplaced or not, it’s made me write, run marathons and try other new things.  I’m not afraid any more, and that lack of fear has freed me to treasure more of life’s elusive, enchanted moments – like the look, feel and smell of my son’s damp hair after his bath tonight. These little snapshots are mine, forever. I wish I had more of Juliette’s.

Life surprises you for good, and for bad. At the moment I’m getting more of the good, unexpected kind.  I’ve been lucky in lots of ways. I had a good education and a loving family, yet I always lacked a bit of self belief.  It’s taken the experience of losing my daughter before I could admit how much I love to write, and to call myself a writer.

My weekly visits to the prison have put all these thoughts under the microscope. I’m exposing the fragile flower of what I love to the toughest audience imaginable, and it’s giving me the biggest buzz. If Juliette hadn’t died, fear on several fronts would have kept me at home. As it is, I have the enormous privilege to spend time with these men, and witness the moments where their confidence blossoms. It feels like freeing butterflies from a box that’s been buried underground.

I’ve worked mainly with Michael’s class, but I have spent one morning with another teacher called Lucy. Lucy teaches in the main building – the Victorian part of the prison. It’s imposing, like my old Edinburgh school, and a world away from the friendliness of the new education block where I’d been previously.

That morning there was snow on the ground outside, and the building was freezing.  Gary, the first of the four men in the class to arrive, got the coveted table next to the radiator. He sat there warming his hands and casting suspicious looks at me.  Then Elliot, a big man in his twenties, came in.  As the other two men, Charlie and Rob sat down, Elliot and Gary started chatting about their situations.

“Yeah, I’m in for murder too but my brief thinks he can get it reduced to manslaughter.”

Rob, who had just started a test, upbraided the younger men. “You two, you always bring up why you’re in when there’s a new woman around. What, you think she’s going to be impressed?” I’m hearing more of this sort of thing, and getting better at putting it to the back of my mind. If you dwell on it too much, it colours your contribution.

In prison, lessons like the ones I’m involved in are considered “work” for which prisoners are paid. Once on a class list they are compulsory, with non-attendance resulting in a loss of privileges.  Most classes include a mentor, who is paid slightly more for his role. The system of payment sounds odd, until you realise that the prisoner only earns a pound or two per week at most for his work.

Charlie was the mentor in this particular class. Charlie, now in his mid-twenties, had been to a good public school. We spoke a bit of French, after he told me he’d been at Montpellier University for a year. He talked about getting into trouble with cocaine, linked to a girl he’d fallen in love with, and how he’d been picked up by the police for stealing a car. He’d already served four months and was hopeful he’d be released soon.  It was interesting listening to how he roughed up his accent. I can’t imagine it’s easy being the “posh” inmate. He wasn’t finding prison life too hard, though. “It’s a lot like boarding school,” he said.

With some trepidation of my new audience, I talked to the class about re-writing fairy tales.  This, surprisingly, has worked brilliantly with other groups in the prison.

“Really?” Charlie asked, with a sardonic lift to his eyebrow. “You think that idea’s going to fire up a bunch of prisoners?”

In earlier classes I might have crumbled but I persisted, giving examples of the ways other prisoners had interpreted the stories, to make Goldilocks a burglar or The Three Little Pigs gangster brothers. “Change everything if you want,” I said. “Make it your story.”

Elliot picked up a pen and started writing straight away. It was striking because Lucy had warned me Elliot has severe ADHD, and could spend the whole two and a half hours pacing the room. He didn’t break off once, producing a couple of pages of beautifully neat writing which told his story, based on the The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. When he’d finished, he wrote an emotional poem dedicated to his girlfriend and mother of his son.

“I love writing poetry,” he said. “I write it all the time…helps me deal with things.”

Charlie planned a story around the financial markets, where the three little pigs were symbols representing corporate profit, the government and the individual investor.  He asked me about writing competitions that had big money prizes.  “I’m after some capital for when I get out,” he said.

“No,” said Gary. “I can’t do this. I’ve got no imagination.

“OK,” I said, “You’ve got children, haven’t you? What are their favourite stories?”

“I don’t know, I can’t concentrate and I’m no good at reading,” he said and started doodling on his paper, to signal the end of the discussion.

This is a marker for me of how my confidence has grown at the prison. The brick wall Gary presented me with was a challenge, and I wanted to take it down.  Inmates, by and large, seem to find it easier to write about themselves. I’d planned a few life writing prompts in case this happened.

“Forget the fairy tale then. What was the best day of your life?” I asked. “Could you write about that?” Gary looked blank. “What about the day your daughter was born?”

“Oh….that was beautiful….” he started, and I could almost see the light go on in his eyes.

“Would you write that down?  Tell me how it happened? What did you feel?”

He hesitated, went quiet and then started writing.  For a few minutes, he wrote. When he’d finished I asked if he would read it to me. He shook his head, but passed it to me, blushing. His words were full of feeling; the love of a father for his newborn daughter. It was beautiful, and I told him so.

“I’m sorry I wouldn’t do it before,” he said, “I’m not feeling very well. Do you think you always get ill when you’re coming off drugs?” I looked at his complexion and eyes, and the penny dropped.

“Probably,” I said, and mumbled something inadequate about toxins. “I hope you’ll start feeling better soon.”

“Thanks miss.  You here next week?” I told him I hoped so. “You want to play Scrabble with me, Elliot and Charlie now?”

So there I was, playing Scrabble with two men on a murder charge, and another who might have been my contemporary twenty years ago – a moment of my life I couldn’t have dreamed of predicting.

Two weeks later I was back, and Charlie had gone.  Released? No. He’d been sentenced to two and a half years and had been moved to a different prison. Not what he’d expected for his life, either. I hope he writes that story, and others too.