I had intended to close my eyes when they opened the gates, to close off my primary sense and use only my ears to absorb the revelation of freedom. I would lie in my bunk at night sometimes and imagine the sound of those huge gates parting ways for me. I didn’t know if they were still traditional gates with a heavy barrage of locks, or if they had been replaced with new ones, electronically controlled by a lever or button in a booth somewhere in the vicinity. I knew they would be metal though. I knew that, and so in my bunk in the dead of night I imagined the groan of steel and iron, the scuffing sound of gravel being swept backwards puffing out small clouds of chalky dust. In my vision there were no others leaving that day, only myself. I would stand alone with all the dignity I could muster, in my own clothes that may or may not still fit me and I would close my eyes, the image of a barred gateway in my minds eye and wait until I could hear no more movement, then I would draw a deep breath and open my eyes and all there will be in front of them is space. A stretching road, reaching from me into the beyond with no bars nor shackles, nor guards lining its path. A road that lead either into the hills if I were to go right or into the towns if I chose left and I would be free to select my own destination. For the first time in fifteen years.
I could smell coffee wafting down the corridor which meant it must have been just after six and the early shift guards were arriving. I could see a sliver of light breaking through the darkness outside. Stretching, I swung my legs out of my bunk and cracked my neck to ease the stiffness. My cell mate was at the bucket, his piss falling heavy and fast, some of it splashing back onto his bare feet. He didn’t seem to notice. I heard the jingle of keys and then the clang of a truncheon being slammed against a railing.
“Alright, listen up;”
A voice rang out and for a second all that could be heard was the creaking of bed springs and the shuffling footsteps of inmates, some crowding their doors, hairy arms dangling through the bars like caged apes.
“… the following men are to report to Captain Ingle after breakfast: Barton, 10650 Keats, 23671 Matthews, 21455 Singh 32186 Tillman, 19498 and Weinstein, 23990 You are to be released from the custody of this facility and may God guide your every step from here to eternity.”
As the last echo of the speech faded to nothingness against the whitewash ceiling, there was a cheer from one of the cells below, a huge raucous cheer that seemed to shake the dust from the rafters. I looked towards my cell mate. He nodded and looked away from me, his big dopey face contorted with disgust.
I was getting out. He was staying in. We were no longer to be cell mates and as we had never and would never be friends, there was little to say. Jacob. S. Connolly, from Irish stock originally but now in the fourth generation of his family since immigration, he had nothing of the old country about him save for the tiny bible that lived under his pillow with an inscription in the front pages about the beauty of the emerald isle. The word ‘emerald’ was spelt wrong, an ‘o’ replacing the second ‘e’, although I don’t think Jacob could read well enough to notice.
When he was first moved into this cell he was cordial enough, but he talked in his sleep, begging his mother to speak to him and to cook him stew with dumplings. On these occasions his voice would wobble like a child’s when they are on the cusp of a tantrum. Other times he would occasionally berate a woman called Nancy for something he never seemed able to articulate beyond murmurs and threats of violence if it happened again. I had mentioned this to him one day during the morning ritual of taking it in turns to do push ups in the narrow space between our bunks. Jacob went white with shock as I explained to him and then very quickly flushed crimson from his throat upwards. He put his fist under my nose, crushing my lips, and made it very clear to me in his own words that he wasn’t crazy and that suggesting he was talking in his sleep like a madman was going to prove bad for my health. I could have taken him on, I could tell from the way he moved that he was a slow and clumsy fighter, but it seemed foolish to make an enemy of the man I had to trust not to slit my throat in the night so I backed down without incident. After that conversation though, he refused to even look at me. I suppose he thought I was mocking a weakness he had involuntarily exposed. I didn’t see it that way, but who am I to force interpretation upon anyone. I couldn’t convince a jury to see things my way, I doubted I could convince Jacob.
Officer McDonnell opened our cell door and looked me over. His right eye, alert and bright as always, the iris so dark it was hard to tell where his pupil began, swivelled around the cell and came back to rest on my face.
“You’re leaving us today Charlie?”
He posed it like a question as he did with almost all statements. The last word of his sentence slanted upwards in pitch.
“Good, think you’re ready?”
I didn’t know if this was a genuine question or another odd inflection and nodded with vague committal.
The older man grunted and ran his tongue along his bottom set of teeth, pushing his lip out. Reaching up, he scratched just beneath the grey cloth patch over his left eye socket. There wasn’t really much more to say between us either.
After breakfast I reported and was handed a bundle of civilian clothes and told to go change in the toilets.
They weren’t the clothes I had come in with, these were charity clothes, cheap and worn. Apparently my own clothes had been infested with lice and had to be burned but I suspected that top of the line tailored pants and a shirt made out of fine linen as opposed to cotton, with a matching pale blue silk tie simply were not meant to sit in storage for fifteen years in a place where guards have families to feed and clothe.
My remaining belongings, pathetic as they were, I piled into the paper bag provided. I carefully rolled my certificate of carpentry qualification, tied it with string, and placed it on top of my two books which were Moby Dick and The Last Of The Mohicans. I also owned a carton of cigarettes and a pocket book of matches which I had forgotten about. Last but not least there were keys to a car. I had told the police the keys were a sentimental trinket, a memento from a dead relative. They hadn’t believed me, I wouldn’t have believed me either, the way I was sweating when they mentioned it, but they hadn’t found the car either so they clearly had no choice but to return the keys to me upon my release date. I fed the my belt through the key ring and buckled it tight, securing them to me then flopped my new shirt over the top, the armpits stank of stale whiskey and shrimp.
I was asked if I wanted to return to my cell and say good-bye to Jacob and I declined without a second thought. Fifteen years of that cell, that tiny smoke box of a window, always clouded with grime and a view of only one barren field if you stood on the bed to look … if I could have viewed anywhere in that place one last time it would have been the kitchen. For the last six years I had washed dishes in there, three times a day all by myself and it was my own little paradise a reward earned through nine years of good behaviour.
It had a large window, barred up alright but cleaned regularly, and the most beautiful view of the road and the woods beyond it. At certain times I could make out the shape of servant women carrying their mistress’ shopping home, mothers shooing children ahead of them, their voices lost to me over the distance but a sweet sight all the same. No matter how many times the guards barked at me to hurry up my scrubbing I always took as long as I could.
All six of us who were to be free that day were escorted by truck to the gatehouse. We said very little, each exchanging nervous smiles and nods, I offered round my packet of cigarettes and despite the tobacco being little more than dust two men accepted. I couldn’t tell who was who, although as we descended I noticed the label poking out of one man’s coat it read “A.J Tillman”. He saw me looking and the menace in his eyes as he turned to face me made me check my step. I have always found it best never to presume a man is guilty of the crimes he is imprisoned for until you hear the confession from his own lips, but at that second I would have wagered my freedom that A.J Tillman had done whatever it was they said he had done, and that he would do it again.
My identity card was handed to me at the gatehouse, just one more door to walk through and I would be facing those massive gates and then, well, then it was whatever I wanted for the rest of my life.
I looked at the card handed to me and there I was: Charles Bartholomew Barton, originally from Perth, Australia, now of no fixed abode, next of kin - none. 5’9”, blonde hair, blue eyes, birthmark on right shoulder. 20 years old at time of arrest, 35 years old now. Crime - Murder.
I looked from the paper to the gate keeper and he shrugged.
“You look younger than that, and someone messed up on your height. But yeah, not bad boy-o. Fifteen years?”
The man whistled and shook his head.
“We all have to live with the choices we make as young men. Good luck to you mate.”
I looked at his extended hand and it stirred something deep inside of me. I gripped his palm like a life raft floating me away from a dreadful storm which I should never have ventured into.
My voice was gruff and I had to blink rapidly for a few seconds.
“Move! You dingo shagging son of a whore!”
It was Tillman from further down the queue. I glanced back at him briefly, he wanted to fight. I saw him bristle, like a dog raising its hackles and I turned to stare at him, my hands loosely curled at my sides. He stepped out of the line and I placed my bag on the floor.
“Knock it off! Or you’ll be back in there before the imprint of your arses is even off the damn truck bench!”
One of the other guards glared at us, daring us to defy him. We weren’t free yet. Tillman nodded to me and moved back into the group. I don’t know which of us would have won that fight but in here it didn’t matter. Once a fight was off, it was off.
We all milled around for a few more minutes, Tillman took one of my cigarettes and I lit it for him. We were all restless now. Every gust of wind that brushed aside the flimsy curtains and brought a flush of hot air into the room was a gust of wind we should have felt as free men.
Eventually the key holder arrived, and the guard who had shaken my hand pushed me gently forward. I was being lead toward the door, the final door between myself and freedom.
Fifteen years! Fifteen Christmas’, fifteen birthdays, fifteen times around the sun and finally I was through the door. Sunlight flooded the courtyard and I could see the heavy iron gate with its thick black locks but I didn’t close my eyes.
Instead I stared up at the sky until the tears streamed down my face and I was blinded by white-light. I heard the metal scraping just as I had intended, but beyond that I heard the birds and they sang and called me to the ocean, to the waves lapping at the shore and those waves were so bold in my memory that they drowned out the gates defiant scraping. And still the birds sang:
“Go! Go West!
Or South or East!
Follow the path,
Which pleases you best.
Save North for another day,
You have so many now!
Find water, Find water!
Make your own way!”I started walking, still blinded, but my feet found their path, and my eyes adjusted to the light, greens and browns swimming into focus until I saw the trees ahead of me and then I was there. The gate scraped shut behind me and, I know it sounds stupid to say it, but the sunlight on this side of the gate felt warmer somehow. It is almost definitely my imagination but I still wonder sometimes, in my more whimsical moments, maybe the sun … maybe she really did shine a little brighter for me that day, welcoming back to the land she touches freely, without long shadow of bars and chains; encouraging me to get away from that place, to circle the earth, just as the earth circles her.