My head ached, just as it had every morning for the last four years. I sat up, then managed to stand to do my stretching exercises, needing to get the creases out of my body ready to start another day in the cell. I sat on the edge of the concrete shelf that served as my bed and checked my surroundings, part of my mental stretching exercises, then counted the blocks in each wall, added them together to see if the total was the same as yesterday – it was.

The sun was shining through the small high window in the wall above the bed so I  marked the shadow of the central iron bar, on to the wall. I used one of the fingernails on my right hand then buffed the rest on the concrete. It was the only way I could keep them to a reasonable length, although I kept the nails on my left hand quite a bit longer so that I could comb my hair and beard with them.

I then said good morning to my cell mates, Ivan Denosovitch, The Count of Monte Christo, Napoleon, Terry Waite, Brian Keenan and the unknown others who had spent many years in a cell, on their own. I wondered how they had felt as they were snatched away from their planned life just as I had. Did they suffer from the same black despair?

*

It was while I was driving along a country lane on my way to work, enjoying the birdsong drifting through the open window as I doodled along. I was in no hurry to get to the office to face the onslaught of e mails, reports, decisions, all the unnecessary details of office life. Limbo seemed a good place to be that morning, neither at home or at work, just a pause, in no man’s time, without responsibilities.

There was a car pulled over in a gateway on the side of the lane with it’s bonnet up. I stopped, a welcome delay that could justify my late arrival at work. ‘Can I help?’ I called out of the window to the figure hunched over the engine.

‘Can you just have a look at this and see if you think this is the problem?’ he said, pointing.

I ambled over to the car. ‘I don’t know much about cars but I’ll have a quick look if you like.’ I leaned into the front of the car to stare at the anonymous black lumps in the engine bay.

I didn’t see the two men rush out of the field to pull a canvas sack over my head and tie my wrists together with a cable tie-wrap. I heard the nylon rachet as they pulled it tight. They pushed me into the back of the car, banging my head in the process – not trained police obviously, no comforting hand pushed down on the top of my head. The door slammed shut, the bonnet clunked down and the engine started. Seemed I fixed it?

I tried to ask questions. ‘Who are you? What do you want? Where are you taking me?’ They just came out as a mumble through the sack and were ignored. I started to follow the route by picturing the turns as I was flung across the width of the back seat but I soon lost my way. How long was the journey? It seemed like an hour but I couldn’t measure the time passing. The car stopped, the door next to me  opened and a sweet smelling pad was clamped over my face, through the sack. As I started to lose consciousness, I realised the sweet smell was probably from chloroform.

*

Four years is a long time with no papers, books, music or human contact. I heard few sounds. One was the flush of the stainless toilet but even that stopped automatically after three flushes in any one hour. I assumed this was to stop me from flooding my cell. There was also the sound of the daily food delivery. The passage door was unlocked and opened. Then there were twelve footsteps to my cell door, followed by a silence. I had learned to push the previous days plastic tray out through the trap. Only after I had done that would the new tray with my food for the day pushed through. They had trained this cage rat well. I took it, waited to hear the twelve retreating steps, a clang as the passage door was closed, the jingle of the keys, the jangle of it being locked. This part of the day always reminded me of Bob Dylan – without the tambourine, or the harmonica, or the singing, so why Bob Dylan? Silence descended like a dark cloud on a mountain top for the next twenty four hours. I was on my own. All my attempts to communicate with my jailers were met with complete silence, I had not heard one word from another human being for four years.

It took me three weeks after the start of my incarceration to realise that I must take control of myself or I would risk losing my sanity. I raged and banged on the door and walls for hours at first but the only result was to leave bruises on my hands and an increasing feeling of helplessness. I could keep my body fit by a rigorous regime of daily exercises, but I had nothing for my mind.  I had to develop a similar regime of mental exercises.

I could not dwell on the fact of my imprisonment, why I was here, who were my captors, how long would I be here. I had to develop a calm acceptance of the boundaries of my life and live it to the fullness that was possible within those boundaries. I remembered the saying, ‘Don’t argue with the weather.’

Desperate for someone to talk to, I would invent someone, a doppleganger. He would be my conscience, companion and my opposite. He would assume the role of the opposition in any debate.

I would glean as much information as possible about my circumstances. Any information I gained would boost my self esteem and give me back a feeling of some control over my life.

I would organise each day to a program. This would keep me busy and provide some of the time pressure that I had been used to in my previous life.

Lastly, I would not dwell on missing my family. The cell was my world so I would inhabit only that. No speculation about the outside world.

*

I watched him as he stared at the swirling dust motes, trapped in a perpetual dance in the thin lance-like shaft of sunlight shining through the three iron bars in the window. The cell was dark, stinking, terrifying. He had known nothing else for four years. The window was too high to reach to see out.

‘Why don’t you do something? You just sit there and pretend to think, as if that is doing anything. Why aren’t you angry every day? Why don’t you rage against the dying of your light? What is wrong with fighting back against whoever is keeping you here? I’m beginning to think that you have just given up and started the long slide down into hopelessness.’

‘It is OK for you to keep on at me, you don’t have to stay here all the time, you can just come and go as you wish, free as the birds I sometimes think I can hear. I don’t know why but I am just not angry any more. I seem to have got past that.’

‘Well, either you have got religion or invented a new philosophy or you are on drugs – hey wait a minute, that could be it. They could be putting psychotropic drugs in your food.’

‘But, if they are, how would I know or how could I find out?’

‘Why not just stop eating for a few days, stockpile your food so they don’t know that you are doing and just see if you feel any different. Will you just try that? It’s for your own good and mine. I just want you to stop feeling sorry for yourself and find enough strength to start to fight back. You have a lot or resources you can use. You have memories, you have your brain and all that expensive education that your parents could ill afford. Use all of those against the ones who are holding you here, stand up to them, start the fight back.’ He was still resisting me but I could see that he was thinking about it and working on a plan. He was not a stranger to me, I knew him very well. I was part of him. I watched the gradual change as he drew on his mental strength and decided on a plan.

‘You really have to do something or you will just stop thinking and will soon lose your sanity, you are already halfway there, you are already talking to someone who doesn’t exist.’ He grinned at my feeble attempt at humour.

‘If I go insane, then you will be with me so we will still have each other to talk to,’ he riposted. ‘If I go mad with schizophrenia, at least we will have each other.’

He had plenty of time to order his thoughts so he now rationed himself to one subject a day. He allowed himself one hour a day to decide what the next day’s subject would be. How did he know it was an hour? Each day, when the sun was shining, he marked the position of the shadow of the middle window bar on the wall. This gave him an arc which varied as the seasons changed. He then filled in the gaps from cloudy days freehand. After two years, he knew the position of the longest and shortest days so could easily plot the position of the equinoxes. He had a calendar on his wall. He now knew the date and the length of each day so he could divide each day into the hours of daylight; he now knew the time – if the sun was shining.

He also knew what day of the week it was because, every seventh day he only got one meal, in the morning. He deduced that was a Sunday and the guard had the afternoon off. What did he mark the wall with, he had no pencil or even a nail to scratch a mark and he had to hand back his plastic spoon each day? He solved two problems in one go. His toe and fingernails grew but he had nothing to cut them with so he ground them down on the concrete shelf that served as his bed. He also used them to scratch his calendar on the wall. He kept the nails on his left hand a little longer so he could use them to comb his straggly hair and beard, he couldn’t come up with a way of shaving or cutting his hair.

Now he knew the when, he was determined to find out the where of his imprisonment. This was more difficult so he spent a few days revising his school geometry in his head. He realised that the key was, ‘The apparent migration of the overhead sun’ through the seasons. He could measure the angle of the sun at Midday on the solstices and so work out the angle of latitude. He didn’t have a sextant but he could mark a protractor on the wall. He did this one year and checked it the next, taking the average reading which came out as a fraction over fifty two degrees.

He deduced from this that he was somewhere in the South of England because, although he had no way of finding his longitude, Occam’s Razor said it was  unlikely he was abroad at the same latitude as London.

He decided to use his knowledge to boost his self esteem and worry his guards. He spent most of one year working out what to do, what weapons did he have, how could he use them? He came to the conclusion that his main weapon was his knowledge of the outside world that his guards would assume that he didn’t have and would be certain that he had no way of knowing so how could he use this against them?

‘How am I doing?’ he asked me.

‘So far, so good,’ I replied. ‘I think the next part is the most difficult, and what happens if you have got it wrong and it doesn’t work? Will you be worse off than you were before?’

‘Well, you have checked my method and the calculations so why shouldn’t it work, why are you always so negative?’

‘I am just trying to prepare you for it not working so that you don’t get too disappointed. I think you used to call it managing expectations?’

‘Yeah, OK, thanks a lot. I’ll bear that in mind.’

‘”Sarcasm ill becomes you,” as a poet once said.’

‘Well I guess she didn’t have to talk to someone like you.’

‘Why do you assume the poet was a she?’

‘Just go away and leave me alone, I’m not in the mood for a philosophical discussion at the moment.’ He rolled over until he was facing the wall. He sulked and would not talk to me for nearly two weeks.

He waited until the day came around, he checked his observations and calculations many times until he was a sure as he could be. He waited by the door for the clang of the passage door and then counted the twelve footsteps to his cell door. The trap started to open.

‘Where’s my Christmas dinner then, no turkey, no Christmas pudding,’ he shouted as loudly as he could, ‘you lot really are a load of useless bastards aren’t you.’

He heard the clatter as the plastic tray with his meal was dropped on the floor. Next came a loud, ‘bugger.’ from the guard.

‘I told you it would work!’ he said.

‘Yes, you did a great job and you should feel very pleased with yourself. You have every right,’ I praised him. ‘You have to remember though that your opponents are not the sharpest chisels in the toolbox. If they were that clever, they wouldn’t be guarding someone like you on Christmas Day. What are you going to do next? You can’t just sit back now, you have to keep the advantage you have created and build on it, quickly.’

‘Just you watch me,’ he said. ‘They won’t see it coming.’

I could see that, in spite of losing his food for the day, he felt he had gained a lot more and  was happy with the transaction. The single word he had forced from his guard was spoken in English and the accent was from South West London with perhaps a hint of Cardiff lurking below the surface. He had taken the initiative for the first time in four years and had won. I could already see a slight change in him. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t had any food – or drugs perhaps.

‘As you had no food yesterday, why don’t you not eat any food again today and for a couple more days and just see if you feel any different?’

‘Ok Mr Bossy,’ he said. ‘I’ll try it, just for you.’

‘Yes, but don’t forget that I am part of you so you are also doing it for yourself,’ I reminded him.

‘Ok, whatever,’ he whined, like a petulant teenager. ‘It’s ok for you, I get hungry but you don’t even need to eat.’

‘Are you going to go off on one now and ignore me for another couple of weeks or are we going to work together to do the best we can?’

I was starting to feel like his dad rather than part of him.

‘I’m hungry,’ he said. ‘Very hungry. Why should I have to starve myself just because those bastards the other side of the door want to keep me calm and docile like some caged lab rat? I’m not standing for it, I’m going to show them that I am still a man with a brain and emotions. They won’t get away with treating me like this,’ he shouted, red faced.

‘That’s great, I can see the real you now so we know that they have been feeding you drugs in your food, as we suspected. You will have to calm down for a while though and think what to do next.’

‘I know exactly what I am going to do, I don’t have to think about it. I am going to tell them that I know what is going on and something else which I am not going to tell you about. You’ll just have to wait and see. I must have something to eat though so I’ll probably fade back to being docile again.’ He did.

He took two weeks to work out his next move and didn’t talk to me much, too busy. He had listened very carefully to those twelve footsteps over the years and was certain he could identify the six guards from their rhythm. We played a game together every day that we called, ‘name those footsteps’ He had matched the Christmas Day guard with the guard he had named as Adam but now realised that probably was a mistake. His name was statistically likely to be David because of his London / Cardiff accent.

He waited for two months to check on the guard’s roster and to ensure he could identify ‘Dave’ with some certainty. He waited for Dave’s next duty day and then prepared himself for the next day. He had rehearsed his speech many times with me and was now ready.

He counted the twelve steps and then, as the trap started to open, he shouted,  ‘Where’s that lazy bastard Dave, has he got a crafty day off and sent you instead?’ There was a muttered, ‘shit,’ the trap was closed and the guard hurried away with his food.

He now waited for the next time Dave was on duty. When he recognised the approaching footsteps, he positioned himself by the door with the empty tray. Normally he would push it through the flap as soon as the footsteps stopped just outside the door but today he waited for a couple of heart beats and said,’ Will you do me a favour Dave, ask that idiot of a doctor you have here to change my medication? I don’t do too well on Lithium so could he change me to a medium dose of Valium and I’ll let you know if that is better?’

Dave didn’t answer. He just took the empty tray and pushed the new one through the flap.

Yes! Another psychological victory was his. He wasn’t bothered about the drugs he was on, he just accepted that it was a choice of being drugged or not eating and his name wasn’t Hobson, so he would eat. They would now have to try and work out how he was getting all the information or just accept the situation as it was. The big question now was, would they come and search his cell and thereby expose more information on his guards to him?

‘No, they almost certainly won’t come and open the cell door. That would give you a lot more information so they won’t risk it. You have certainly given them something to chew on now though. Well done, you should feel proud of yourself.’

‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I proved you wrong as well didn’t I?’

‘You certainly did! What do you plan next?’

‘I’ve no idea, yet. Give me a chance to think about it and I’ll let you know.’

‘Don’t spend too long thinking, you need to get on with it.’

‘Because I am short of time, you mean? Time is one thing I have plenty of. Now be quiet Jiminy Cricket and let me rest.’

I did, I thought he deserved it.

He laid on his concrete bed and stared at the ceiling as he reviewed the day. It had been a good day. Tomorrow he would have a music day. He had been rehearsing Beethoven’s symphonies in his head for six months and he thought he was nearly note perfect on all nine but he always had problems with the beautiful third movement of the magnificent Ninth. He thought it was probably the wonderful iteration and the seemingly effortless quality of the smooth rhythm of the melody.

He decided that he would get the Divan orchestra to play it, mainly so he could watch wily old Baremboim weave his magic. He thought he deserved a treat today so he played Monterverdi’s Vespers of 1610 in his head and imagined himself in St Mark’s Cathedral, watching the four sackbutts on the left balcony, as the wonderful voices washed over him. He would walk along the waterfront by the Doge’s Palace after the performance before wandering through the crowds of tourists in the Square past the Campanile, perhaps a drink, a bellini of course, in Harry’s Bar?

His eyes slowly closed as he drifted off to sleep after all the excitement of the day.

The door slams open with a crash and a voice he knows well startles him into full wakefulness. ‘Come on, wake up Dad. Mum says you’ve had your Saturday morning lie-in and we need to get down to Tesco’s,’ It’s Jamie, his ten year old. He wants to grab him for a cuddle but he skips out of the room. Just another day to him and too old for cuddles?

He sits up and realises he has no headache and is warm beneath a duvet, laying on a firm but giving mattress, his head having been cradled gently on a wonderful, soft pillow.

He showers and dresses in a trance. ‘What’s going on?’ he asks me.

‘You are home with your family.’ I say.

‘Was it all a dream?’

‘It would seem so,’ he says, as he closes the bedroom door on me with a firm resolve.

I walk into the hard sell of Tesco with Melissa and our three children, in a daze. Had my time in that prison cell really all been a dream? It must have been because my family seem normal and they would surely have said something by now if I had been missing for four years and then turned up again. Reassured, I try to put it all behind me as I focus my concentration on to three year old Naimh who is clamouring for me to lift her into the toddler seat on the trolley.

As I swing her high into the air to hear her joyous giggle, I notice the long fingernails on my left hand.

‘Morning sir, welcome to Tesco,’ says the  security man, ‘Dave’ according to his name badge. He winks at me.

 

© Richard Kefford                                                                                                        Eorðdraca

*

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2 thoughts on “The Cell

    • Oh dear, I did’t write the last bit at all well did I? I meant for the long fingernails on his left hand, and the security man called Dave winking at him meant that his imprisonment was real and did happen. I left the ‘how’ open for the reader. I guess I will have to have another go…

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