Erwin James reprises one of his Guardian columns – a moment of humanity on Christmas day 2000
“Merry Christmas,” said Mr Turnlock, as he lifted the flap covering the observation panel on my cell door at around 7.30 on Christmas morning. He was not being facetious, though there are some that can be. More than once I had been on a wing where it was considered a jolly jape to turn up the volume on the Tannoy system before the cell doors were opened on Christmas morning and yell, “Happy Christmas campers. Ho Ho Ho,” and other such festive spoutings. Effective wake-up calls for sure, but not especially welcome to most ‘campers’ on that particular morning of the year.
This year though, our landing patrol officer was a man of confidence and humane enough to extend a little warmth. As Mr Turnlock checked the rest of the cells for the morning count and roll check, everybody who was awake got a cheery, “Merry Christmas.” His sincerity made for a good start to the day.
Breakfast was good: beans, scrambled egg and bacon. But thanks to Binch, a bespectacled Antipodean doing four years, queueing for it was an ordeal. Wearing a green and yellow paper hat, Binch insisted on wandering up and down the queue bellowing “Wassuuuup?” and blowing a party screecher into people’s faces. Big Rinty was not amused. “If he comes near me with that thing,” he said, scowling, “I’m gonnie ram it doon is fecking throat…”
Sitting around our dining table, Felix the Gambler was in a lighter mood. As we tucked in, he told me and Rinty that during the night he’d had a dream about a Boxing day race meeting. In his sleep he’d seen a gelding called Boss Man win. “I’m telling you,” he said, “this is it.” Apparently, the horse really existed and was due to run the next day. Felix had some knowledge of its form. “It lost last time out,” he explained. “But that was after winning a race 24 hours earlier. This time it’s been rested properly. In my dream it romped it by two lengths.”
An hour or so later Rinty and I went out for a walk, leaving Felix salivating over his form book and a borrowed tabloid race meeting pull-out. His ‘arrangements’ would be conducted by phone via trusted and loyal friends.
It was cold but bright outside. Except for a couple of damson-coloured clouds drifting lazily the sky was clear. There were no more than a dozen men on the yard – most would be sitting in warm cells playing cards or board games, or huddled in television rooms watching The Shawshank Redemption on the video channel as it was piped through from the central control room.
The fact that the yard was almost deserted was no bad thing. The constant competition for space can be wearying sometimes. Space is the real luxury in prison. Standing guard in the corner of the yard, dressed head to toe in black waterproofs, was the unmistakable rotund form of prison officer Mr Watchwell, who normally worked in the punishment block.
“What’s he doing?” said Rinty, pointing at the officer who was stamping his feet.
“He’s probably trying to get the circulation going in his legs,” I said.
“Not that,” he said. “Look – he keeps pointing up at that cell window and then looking about him as if he’s lost something.”
We walked in Watchwell’s direction until we were within earshot. “Your turn,” said a ruddy, steam-breathing face pressed against the bars of the top floor window. Watchwell looked around at the concrete, the tarmac, the fence, the razor wire and then said, “I spy with my little eye…”
“For fuck’s sake,” spluttered Rinty. They’re playin’ I Spy!”
Back on the wing Felix was incredulous when we told him. “You know what?” he said. “It sounds like that Christmas day during World War 1 when the opposing sides ceased hostilities and had a game of football.” Not quite on the same dramatic and poignant scale as that experienced by those valiant men, I know, but there was no denying that Felix had a smidgen of a point.
At lunchtime Binch was at it again, annoying the hell out of the dining hall queue with his screecher. Nobody needed reminding it was Christmas, but I’m almost ashamed to admit to the meal we were served: soup, then turkey and stuffing, with sprouts, carrots, roasties and mash, followed by fruit, a mince pie, and a slab of Christmas cake. The prison kitchen, as usual on such occasions, had done us proud.
There was no bang up during the day, so most of us retired to the TV room for the afternoon to watch The Green Mile, (films about guilty or innocent men in jail always go down well inside.) After the film there was a brief interlude – long enough to collect a ‘cold tea’ from the servery – and then it was time for Titanic on BBC1. After the blockbuster came night-time bang-up and bed. Another Christmas was over.
And Boss Man? Well we listened to the race on Boxing Day. Apparently he’s still running.