“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more…” – Revelations Ch21.
Tony had been in jail for about a year. I met him when he moved to the high security place I was working at. He’d moved in from Armley prison; a place so gothic and foul that sometimes I expected to see Boris Karloff’s face at the rusty bars whenever I went up there.
Armley had a reputation as a jail that was out of control with drugs and booze, and supposedly had prison officers who would hit first as a mean mix of twisted self-preservation and sport. I was pleased I never worked behind those grim oily black brick walls. Tony had experienced all of the hazards for the first part of his remand. He’d moved to my jail with a raging heroin habit and not much to look forward to other than a prolonged rattle and the taste of cheap herbal tea, sipped between bouts of vomiting. I was meant to assess his needs and smooth the path through the many evil facets of a heroin detox.
He was sitting at a small table when I met him. The wing was quiet – people had either gone to work in the prison or they were twisting and writhing in their own sweat on thin plastic mattresses behind thick steel cell doors. Tony looked barely interested when I walked up and introduced myself. I sat down.
We got past the usual: name, date of birth, drugs using, and used, then we chatted for a while about ourselves while we intermittently filled out the assessment. He had a keen mind. Sitting in here was a waste. Nobody, but nobody, ever gets out of jail a better man. It’s a truth you don’t want to hear or believe, but it’s true.
I wrote down the word without thinking twice about it. When you’ve met a lot of people who’ve killed another human the interest in details loses it’s gory appeal.
Murder wasn’t an unusual crime as far as I was concerned. Just a daily piece of life at work.
“I just got my tariff (the minimum time he’d be spending in jail before he was eligible to apply for release)…..thirty four years.”
“Long time. How are you dealing with that?”
“It’s ok I suppose. For what I did.” He looked away.
“I don’t need to know, Tony, really.”
“I’m going to tell you anyway. I kinda need to get some stuff off my chest. If you don’t mind?”
By then we’d established a good rapport. Tony was my age – born exactly a month after me – and had had a pretty similar upbringing; school, normal stuff, teenage angst, then college and all the magic that brought. But he’d dropped out of University and, on a whim, gone to live in the New Forest in an old Gypsy caravan, under the canopy of large oak trees, watching the seasons.
He’d bummed about from one local labouring job to another, and was happy. He’d managed a small codeine habit – jumping from doctor to doctor and moving surgery’s when things got a little suspicious or if GP was half awake at work. Still, he told me what really buzzed his head more than opiates, was living out there in the woods, being part of nature. He read prodigiously and I found out he liked William Burroughs, Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, a lot of the authors I admired. We laughed at some of Hunter’s antics and swapped war stories of fuzzy-headed evenings of yahoo and youth. He was a likeable guy.
“What happened? I mean….why the sentence?” I asked.
“Man….. It was a big mistake, Ben. But…I guess it stands as a good example of how anyone could get down a road they really shouldn’t. I suppose it’s kinda like a map of madness in a way. One minute I’m a good guy who appreciates the world, the next I’m in here.”
“You’re sane though, Tony…at least as sane as anyone is in here.”
He laughed. “Yeah”
Then he launched into it all. And out of all the stories I ever heard in all those years, this was the one which affected me most. By a long way.
“I’d come back up to Leeds to visit my mum. My dad had left her a few years previously and she’d had a few boyfriends. I hadn’t seen her for a year and I wanted to surprise her.
I walked up the path and the front door was open, which was weird, then I heard shouting inside so I ran in and went to the noise, which was coming from the front room. My mum was on the floor and her boyfriend – some old fucker with a bald head and a drink problem – was standing over her kicking her and screaming abuse. I lost it.”
“You stabbed him? Shot him?” Stupid questions.
“Nah. It was worse.”
“Listen, Tony, you don’t have to tell me anything. I’m just a guy sent here to sort out your heroin detox and try and spread a little humanity. That’s all. I don’t want to make any of this worse for you.”
“It’s cool, really. I’m ok. It’s actually nice to talk to someone with half a brain in this dump. I don’t know who are stupider in here: us, or the people in the uniforms.”
He had a point. At least I didn’t wear a uniform, but that wasn’t the problem. What we both knew was that you were stupid for being in here locked up, but that was nothing to those – like me – who chose to work there.
“I just lost it. I mean, he was hurting my mum right in front of me. Anyone would have done what I did….at first.”
“I suppose I’d have hit him.” I said weakly.
“Well, I did; I hit him when he turned around to face me. It knocked him over. And that should have been the end of it; the retribution done; problem solved; mum better without him. But I didn’t stop. I knelt on top of him and kept punching. When I stopped hitting I looked at his face and thought ‘Shit, I’ve really hurt him’, he was bleeding from his mouth and nose and he was unconscious.”
We sat in silence for a few seconds. He was looking at the table and slowly shaking his head.
He continued after taking a deep breath.
“I was looking at him, just knelt there looking, and thinking ‘I’m in trouble’! But then my mum was sobbing and had started to kick him and another thought started to flash in my mind – ‘I’ve done this much…’ It was all it took. I hit again and again. Some of his teeth got punched into his mouth. And then that thought again…’I’m in trouble, but I’ve done this much….’ So whatever I did next wasn’t going to make it worse. At the time it made perfect sense.
I took out a pocket knife, only a small thing.” He stopped again, pausing for a less painful glimpse of that day.
“When I’d finished he was dead alright. His teeth were gone, so was his nose. I’d even cut off his ears. When they arrested me I still had one of them in my pocket. It was madness.”
He looked at me. “It made sense at the time…you know….the thought that I’d hurt somebody so hurting them a little more made no difference in the scheme of it all. From a punch in the face to cutting someones ears off…..the whole process was rational.”
“But you know it isn’t, right?”
“Yeah. I knew it before too. Just in that moment…”
He would be almost seventy when he got the first chance for release. There he sat, in cheap prison clothes, black hair ruffled and unwashed, layer of stubble interspersed with cuts from the crap prison razors. Same interests, same sense of humour, same age; he was me. That was it; the feeling dawned quickly: he could be me…and I could have been him. The ease with which he explained something as intangible as how it felt to murder someone, and why, made the process, for the first time, easy to understand. He wasn’t robbing someone, or beating someone up outside a pub, or taking part in a drug deal gone awry in a Moss-Side alleyway, he was just some guy; some average guy. I’d met at least a hundred murderers and this was the first time I understood the crime. Murdering is easy. We can all do it, and sometimes we really want to do it. I found that revelation appalling.
“I’ll just do my time quietly, try to get some good books, and get out and go back to the forest. You know what I miss most?”
“The smell of the earth in the woods just before a thunderstorm. That moment when the earth opens itself up to receive the fury and the beauty of a storm. I won’t smell that again until I’m an old man.” He sighed, and shrugged his shoulders. A beaten man. His victim would have enjoyed that little gesture of complete loss and abandonment.
I’d never thought about it, but I knew what he meant. There was profound realisation for me – for both of us, I guess – of how simple our lives, and our deaths, really were in all of it, somewhere. We are tiny little souls dancing on some chaotic storm breeze, prone to chance, and prone to being stamped on no matter what the circumstances or the motivation. We’re born open to experience and to soak in this gorgeous life, yet…well…we can kill each other if the storm is strong enough.
“I’ve got the best years of my life to come and they are wasted already,” he said. “I loved the world so much, but now it’s gone……it’s dead. My world now is concrete and fear and boredom.”
He wasn’t right. It would be worse, he just didn’t know it yet.