alice in the underworld

Despite having to work in an office that looks suspiciously like a converted cupboard, Alice, the warden is remarkably upbeat.
‘Have you come to see Terry?’ she says, squeezing past a heap of junk out into the hostel landing. ‘Shall I show you the way? It’s a bit of a warren…’
Even though I have been before, I know how confusing the layout is, so I say ‘That’d be great, thanks.’
‘Poor old Terry,’ she says, locking the cupboard/office door behind her then marching off up a set of stairs so narrowly twisting and creaking it’s like being processed the wrong way through the guts of a dilapidated monster. ‘He’s had such a time of it. We’re a bit worried about him, to be honest. He’s wasting away. I mean – he barely eats a thing, and he’s not going out like he used to. Mind you…’ she says, pushing through a fire door and then on through a series of branching corridors, ‘…at least he’s not seeing Keith.’ She turns and frowns at me, as if to say You know – KEITH, then carries on down the corridor. I feel like I’m in one of those nightmares where the way gets smaller and smaller and you end up on your knees tapping with one finger on a door the size of your hand. But suddenly Alice stops, turns on the spot, raps smartly on the door to her left, and goes in.

She’s right about Terry wasting away. What makes his condition worse, somehow, is the contrast between his emaciated body and the dark luxuriance of his beard and hair, curling upwards and outwards with such vigour you’d think they were wigs, stuck on a cadaver for the contrast. Terry’s still in his green hospital pyjamas, an ID band around his wrist. It says in the notes he self-discharged, against advice. Quite how he made it home I’ve no idea, although maybe Keith helped.

The room is a mess. Someone has had a rudimentary go at clearing some space at least, the piles of trash and bags and boxes and clothes pushed to one side of the room, occupying every spare foot of the galley kitchen surfaces and sink, giving the bedsit a lopsided feel. A light breeze plays in from the sea just a fag-flick away through the window, dispelling to some extent the heavy atmosphere in the room.
‘Sorry it’s in such a two-and-eight,’ says Terry, struggling to sit up on the edge of his soiled bed and then picking at his nails. ‘I haven’t had a chance to tidy up.’
‘We’ll get it sorted, Terry,’ says Alice. ‘Anyway. Listen. There’s a support worker guy coming later with some supplies. So that’s good.’ She pauses a moment, raising her eyebrows and smiling, to let the good news percolate through, I suppose. Terry waves his hand; she nods emphatically again. ‘’Okay! I’ll leave you to it, then,’ she whispers, and quietly closes the door behind her.
‘Damond girl, Alice’ says Terry. ‘They all are.’
‘I like their office.’
‘It’s a cupboard.’
‘I thought so.’
‘They ‘ain’t got no money for nuthin’.’
‘No. I guess not.’
‘They do their best though.’

I’m halfway through the exam when there’s another knock on the door and Jack, the support worker steps inside. Jack’s enormous, a bear in a parka, check shirt and caterpillar boots, holding a carrier bag of shopping in either paw. He’s wearing a face mask, and looks startled to see me there without one.
‘Oh!’ says Jack. ‘We were told we had to wear them. You know – ‘cos of the – thing.’
‘It’s fine,’ I tell him. ‘As far as I can tell. Terry’s being treated so it’s not classed as active.’
‘Oh!’ says Jack again. I expect him to take the mask off, but he stands there a moment undecided. Eventually he carries on, ignoring the fact he’s wearing it, so Terry and I ignore it, too.
‘I bought you a selection of things,’ he says. ‘Honey nut cornflakes, bread, milk, biscuits, tea. Y’know. The basics. Alice gave me a list.’
‘That’s kind of you, mate. Thanks,’ says Terry. ‘I need fattening up.’
Jack looks at him, then at me, then at Terry again, then carries on unpacking. Although it’s hardly unpacking – more like stacking – in the one clear corner of the kitchen he can find. He hesitates before opening the fridge to put the milk and butter away, and I expect he’s glad he didn’t take the mask off.
‘There!’ he says, closing the fridge again. ‘All done! We’ll be back this afternoon to talk about some other stuff, but I’ll let you crack on for now.’
‘Okay mate. Thanks again,’ says Terry. Jack clumps out and shuts the door.
‘I can’t complain,’ says Terry, crooking one leg over the other and crossing his arms. ‘I ‘ain’t got no reason not to get better.’

He starts telling me about his recent past. How he fell in with some big time gangster who let him stay in the cottage in his grounds rent free for a little delivery work.
‘Man – you shoulda seen that place!’ says Terry. ‘The house was like a castle. Actually I think it was a castle. He had this pond in the middle of the lawn, and it was filled with these enormous fish, all flood-lit, swimming about like bastards. Each one of ‘em worth a monkey. And the cars he had. From little fancy Italian sports jobbies to big fuck-off landrovers, all of ‘em in temperature controlled stables.’
‘Didn’t have any horses then?’
‘Horses? Nah! He didn’t like horses. ‘Cept down the track. Anyway, one night I was in the cottage, minding my own, having a little puff, when there was all these flashing lights outside, and I know it sounds stupid but at first I thought some’ink had gone wrong with the fish pond. But then it was all like Police! Open up! And I’m like How do I know you’re the old bill? Anyone can shout anything. So they smashes the door down and they drag me outside. They were after my mate, ‘course. Same old story. They was always trying it on. But they didn’t have nothing. He was a lot of things, but he wasn’t careless.’
‘So then what happened?’
‘It all went a bit Pete, I didn’t have no scratch, so I split.’
He shrugs, then leans forwards on his folded arms to inspect his leg as it kicks up and down.
‘Funny how it goes, innit?’

lucky, buddy & me

Lucky’s a hard man.

You can tell immediately – not so much from the ruin of his body, his arms and shoulders the texture of old stilton, veined and nicked and scabbed from years of drug abuse; not from his ill-fitting false teeth, his gold chains or his blurry tattoos – hula hula girl, flaming skull, Ace of Spades; nor from the casually terrible things he says, stories of violence, vendettas, feuds, armed robberies and the like. And it’s not something you’d simply extrapolate from the block-cap note in the front of his folder: DOUBLE-UP VISITS IN THE PRESENCE OF SUPPORT WORKERS ONLY. No. Without any of these things you’d still be able to tell. He carries it deep in his eyes – an unsettling, milky blue, as if the poison of all that hostility rose up over the years and tainted the purer colour. I can imagine him turning those eyes on the face of enemy, warden or wall with the same languorously hostile expression. For now, though, he seems to have accepted my role in this particular scenario, and offers out his paw for the SATS probe with the weighty insouciance of a tiger, claws retracted.

‘The doctor? Nah mate! They don’t send doctors out to me no more. The last one, he said Your old man’s very ill. Oh yes? I said. What the fack’s wrong with the ol’ cant now? I’m afraid he’s got cancer he said. He’s not got long to live much longer. Is that right? I said. So I knocked him out…’

‘The hardest thing about doing time’s the first week. Once you done that it’s easy. Piece of piss. You get in the routine, know what I mean? I’ve done plenty. Most of my life I’ve been one place or the other. You name it, I’ll tell you the crack. I could write a book. Anyway, where I come from, half of us end up inside. Walking round the block was like walking round the old manor…’

‘I think the worst thing they ever did was cut down on the heroin. They jes’ went an made a whole lot of work for themselves. No-one’s going to make any trouble smacked out of their heads, are they? Now they got all this other gear going in, fake stuff that winds you up and makes you punchy. You don’t want that when you’re all banged up, d’you? Stands to reason. But they don’t think like that, do they?’

‘I been in trouble since I was a kid. I got sent to borstal for stabbing-up me eldest brother. I was ready to go and stab him up good n’proper when I got out, ‘cept I was on a bank job and got sent down for a stretch before I got the chance. I haven’t forgotten him though. Once these legs are better I’ll be payin’ the cant a little visit…’

– o O o –

Back in the support workers’ office for the debrief, a mad looking labradoodle is wandering round with a green and yellow plastic turtle. He goes from person to person, squeaking the toy a couple of times, dropping it at our feet, and then backing away with his mouth open and his tail wagging, looking up at our faces and then back down at the toy , as if he can’t believe we’re not as mad for it as he is.

Buddy! Don’t be such a pain!’ says one of the support workers, but she throws the toy for him anyway, and he races after it. After a while he brings it over to me, watching me with an insane expression as I pick it up and turn it over and over in my hands.

I have an image of Buddy behind bars, lights out, squeaking the turtle mournfully, like a harmonica.

I’m glad he’s here, though. Buddy’s like me. I don’t think he’d cope all that well in prison, turtle or otherwise.

‘There you go, Buddy!’ I say, lobbing his toy back over the other side of the office.

We laugh as he crashes after it.