2015 Winner: The Amelia Burns Cup for Prose – Philip Eley

Redemption
Philip Eley

When Jerry wakes in the dull light of morning he has to peal himself away from the bloodstained bed-sheets.  He can’t face wearing clothes so wraps himself in a bath towel. In the kitchen he cuts crusty bread into huge chunks which he places under the grill before spreading thickly with butter. His loose tooth dislodges itself before he finishes the second piece and he spits the whole lot, tooth and all, onto the surface of the breakfast bar.  This starts his gum bleeding again so he stuffs his mouth with a nearly-clean dish cloth. He passes the morning watching the sort of programmes that he often teases the boys about until the tedium of it becomes unbearable and he throws a shoe at the TV.

Becky is wearing black heels and black tights.  She’s also half-wearing a grey skirt that’s too short and has raised high at the back revealing a ladder that runs eight inches or so down her thigh.  She’s standing at the quiet end of Dale Street, Manchester, leaning against the grey shutter of a closed-down shop.  Someone has written ‘Manchester Vibe In The Area’ on the shutter in red paint. Trails of red reach to the floor like spider’s legs.  Down near her feet a dirty pigeon with a missing toe pecks at a half-eaten Twix.  A man strides past in a hurry. She tries to look seductive but he shrugs his apologies and walks back out onto the main road, trying to blend in quickly.  She watches the brief flashes of colour as people pass the end of the street. They never quite look into the tangle of dark alleys and quiet streets that is Back Piccadilly.  When she hears a siren she watches for it passing by in a blink and a scream. When it’s gone she tries to shake her body free of the fear which has taken hold.

Jerry’s limbs ache like they’ve been wrung out, but most painful of all is his mouth. He’s made himself look as presentable as possible but people still cast him wary side-long glances. He hurries into the chapel to tidy the altar. After he tidies away the host and the non-alcoholic wine he sits on a pew and massages his jaw. As he walks out he spits on the toes of the figure on the crucifix. Jerry loves his job but hates his faith. It’s been this way for 3 years now and astonishingly, no one seems to have noticed. The boys come to his services because it’s that or cleaning, and they wear his rosaries because it’s the only jewellery they’re allowed to wear. Outside a group of boys are weeding. ‘Gardens’ is one of the more popular jobs and consequently the outside areas of the prison are kept spotless.  ‘Got a Jesus necklace for me?’ One of the boys asks.

Jerry fishes a holy rosary from his pocket and hands it over.

The pathetic truth is that sometimes he gets jealous of the inmates he serves.  Jealous of their sense of order, the freedom of not having to think, the freedom of being told what to do, the freedom of knowing what the rules are, but most of all the cleansing freedom of punishment.

Becky stands awkwardly, unsure of her own body, like a girl who never grew up. She seems to hold her shoulders too far back and her movements when they come, come in staccato bursts.  This makes her appear like a baby animal, unused to walking yet determined and unapologetic. She plucks at the back of her skirt, as if to remind herself that she’s not naked.  Her sparrow-like arm constantly darts upwards to rub and pick her painted eyebrows; any brave hairs that dare to poke through the black pencil lines are quickly removed with a painful but satisfying tug.  Her age is difficult to guess, her face looks worn and lined but her clothes are deliberately childish and she holds her body like a teenager.  She has stood here for twenty minutes and time has slowed to a crawl. She knows that she needs to be off the streets in just under an hour. If she’s any longer then Jerry will have finished work and will come looking for her.

After visiting unit six he walks across to unit one. Unit one is for the under eighteens. Four lads are on suicide watch, so it is these lads that he visits first. The last boy he visits is cleaning his cell. There’s only one black bottle of shower gel on his shelf. This is a clue to his status. The single most oppressive thing, the ultimate punishment of the prison is the rigid pecking order.  Even the boy that hides every emotion, hates every other person, and fights his way to the top, loses so much humanity in this endeavour that he’s an equally pitiable child to the poor bastard who takes a kick-in at every encounter. The boys use four different colours of shower gel as a complex code to indicate their place on the pecking order. And these four colours dominate their entire lives. One black shower gel means that the boy he is looking at is the peppered meth at the very bottom of the pecking order. Jerry can’t think of a single word to say to him. In the end he just sits with the boy while he cries for 45 minutes straight.

When his day is done, Jerry walks towards his car, knowing where he’ll end up. Although his destination is inevitable he leaves the car-park slowly, vainly trying to convince himself that he might go straight home tonight. Maybe take a bath to sooth his bruised torso. Perhaps get a take-away. Something soft and easy to chew.

When the street-lights start to flicker Becky nips into the alley for a piss.  It’s dark in the alley and a small pile of rubbish is starting to smell.  When she’s finished she wriggles her skirt back down and waddles back out onto Dale Street. People are just starting to leave work and hurry home.  Many of them cross the road to avoid her.  A man in a stripy woollen hat looks her way and she counts off the colours of his hat; red, yellow and green.  If she’s going to get work tonight she’ll need to be quick. She prays that this man wants her. It’s now or never. She hasn’t worked for 3 nights. Bloody Jerry.

Which of them is more pitiful and which more painful?  Becky, pretending it never happened, or Jerry, living in the same village as a penance?  His every day a living reminder.  Her, papering over the past with hard-won drugs, or him, plastering it all over his walls.  She thinks she’s severed the cord; broken the chain, while he tries to stay connected like a spy. Every corner of his home village is a tattoo of her. Every tree on every corner is an accusation asking ‘How could you not know?’ Every brick on every house asks the same question, ‘How could you not know?’

It’s early evening by the time he reaches Dale Street.  Sometimes he comes here just to be in the dirty parts of town.  It’s reassuring to be surrounded by such failure and decay.  The neon lights flash randomly – flattering and disguising everything and everyone.  The debris blows through the narrow streets, blowing over the druggies and the drunks.  ‘Spare any change, sir?’  And yet nothing is spare in Dale Street.

He likes the possibility that some of the world’s secrets are hidden behind the scowls.  Some of the things that he never understood. Some of the things that he never noticed. Because the truth is that he didn’t know. He just didn’t know.

He hides behind a Biffa bin. She hasn’t seen him. He waits till a punter walks up to her and they start the ungodly negotiation that he hates more than anything. Some hideous bargain must be made because they soon start walking towards the canal towpath. Jerry runs towards them but she’s seen him before he reaches them.

‘Go away!’ She shouts.

‘Please don’t do this.’

‘You’ve got to stop this.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Just leave me alone.’

‘Is this your pimp?’ the man asks. Even as he asks it, he’s already squaring up to Jerry. Jerry smiles because now he knows he’s won again. She won’t work tonight. Once the man has punched Jerry repeatedly he’ll lose his appetite for anything else.  Becky starts screaming and crying but it doesn’t matter now. When the first blow comes Jerry relishes his victory. If he can’t save his own sister then just who can he save?

 

1459 words

 

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