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.

13 thoughts on “When life surprises you

  1. Hi Geves

    I too work in prison. I admire your generosity but a part of me wonders if you are being naive (I’m being brutally honest here:))

    The line ‘If you dwell on it too much, it colours your contribution.’ struck home for me.

    My cynicism is probably because I work in the Vulnerable Prisoners Unit and meet ‘charming’ men, who have charmed their way into the lives of families in order to abuse the children. I cannot reconcile how I feel about their charm… with their activity.

    (Apologies for this, so far, unsupportive post)

    Having read this particular blog entry I felt differently. I used to believe that everyone was redeemable. I’d really like to think so.

    1. I really admire you for working with VPs, Madge. I was offered the chance to work with that wing, but I’m not ready yet and not sure I ever will be.

      It must be hard for you ever to get away from why the men you work with are in prison. I try to ignore the crime details of the short sentence/remand guys I’m with, remember they are already being punished, and get on with what I do. I think without this naivety, if that’s what it is, I wouldn’t be able to keep going in.

  2. I’m paid to visit infrequently (maybe 4 mornings a year)in a professional capacity. Would I volunteer? No. I think it takes a particular person to do that and achieve something. I suspect you might be that person. I, most definitely….am not 🙂

    My personal recommendation is don’t go there (VPU). It colours you. It changes your faith in people.

    The men in the VPU are in denial. There is no honesty, because even they, cannot confront their actions. I struggle with the pretence of it all.

    (The murderers, I’m cool with… words you never think you’ll say!)

    If people acknowledge their action, even if they believe it’s acceptable, I can cope somehow. There is a chink of possibility.

    My boss tells me not to think about it – impossible. You cannot deal with someone and know the sort of crime and not wonder at the difference between this man and other men who come into contact with your children. There is no sign above their heads, no ‘look’, no odd behaviour. Nothing. it could be my Dad (but it very much isn’t). It has sullied my view of the men I know. it takes me awhile to put those thoughts away after my visit. I don’t wish to have that knowledge.

    1. Your words have convinced me to stay where I am, and not to attempt the VP wing. I imagine to cope with the men there takes a different kind of person altogether.

      The only inmate who has unsettled me so far was one who was given an IPP for a single crime. He showed no remorse – rather the reverse – he relished the details of what he’d done. You’re right, there has to be a spark of redemption before I can engage. There is a virtue in honesty,as you say, even with crime.

  3. Hi Geves. I know personally what the last ten years have been like for you living just a couple of doors away from you. I’ve seen you at your low times and at your best. You really have become an inspiration for all the people who are fortunate enough to meet you. I wish you the very best with your work.

  4. So glad to hear your new chapter is going well and I hope you do make a contribution to these men and their rehabilitation. Sending you all my best wishes,

  5. What a beautiful blog – I’m so so glad things are working out – it sounds so interesting and you are obvioulsy thriving on the challenge

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