Authors: Carl Merritt
With little for me to do, combined with my total bitterness towards authority and society in general, my mind started wandering towards the inevitable: crime. My first real excursion
into thieving came when I was fifteen and got chatting in a pub one night with an older boy called Joe, who must have been about eighteen. He was a slim, wiry bloke who looked a bit like the pop singer Leo Sayer. Joe told me there was some real money to be earned from robbing shops, so a few days later we broke into a local Fine Fare supermarket late at night. I stayed on the roof while he slid down into the shop on a rope ladder. Then he passed all the gear up to me before we scarpered. It seemed a piece of cake and he bunged me £20 for my troubles, which was huge money back in those days.
On the next job we had to rip an alarm out from a wall above a shop before we could get in. Unfortunately, as it fell, it smashed so hard into my face it broke my nose. Joe took me down the local hospital to get my nose sorted out and then we both returned later that night to finish the job. Again, he bunged me another score – £20 – for my troubles. I felt I was rolling in it.
Then Joe suggested we do some ‘pirate work’ down at Leigh-on-Sea, near Southend. I didn’t know what he meant but I tagged along in the hope of making a few bob to help my family. Joe nicked a rusty orange Cortina in Stratford and we headed down to the coast. Then we found a dinghy on the beach and rowed out to where dozens of boats were moored. It was pitch dark and I fell in the icy water trying to get onto one boat. But we still managed to nick a load of booze and portable TVs and stuff like that. This time Joe bunged me £50 after he’d sold off the gear to a local fence.
Funny thing about Joe was that he must have had a criminal record but he never even bothered wearing gloves. We must’ve been mad to think we could get away with it. He gambled a lot
and told me that one night he’d blown £5000. I’m not a great one for gambling so found it hard to understand why anyone would want to waste his money like that.
Then my criminal career was rudely interrupted by the person I hated most in life.
I’d just returned from one of my regular excursions to Leigh-on-Sea when I walked into our house to find that bastard Terry at it again. Mum’s face was all blown up like a football and the moment I saw it I knew he’d been smashing her up again. Without saying a word, I whacked him straight in the face and then followed up with a flurry of right hooks. Mum did nothing to stop me this time. We both knew it was time to finish off this arsehole for good.
I was a lot bigger this time compared to when we’d last had a stand-up, and I still had all that pent-up anger from getting my boxing career ruined by the iron bar. As me and Terry were scrapping, I grabbed a pen and stuck it right in his kidneys. I didn’t mean to do it: it was just a defensive reaction. Terry collapsed in agony. Minutes later he crawled out of the house for the last time.
I could feel the plastic in the side of my head aching from where he’d landed a few direct hits but it was worth the pain to have taught that shit a lesson. Less than an hour later, the cozzers came knocking at our front door and said Terry had lodged a complaint against me and my older brother John, who hadn’t even done anything. I couldn’t believe it. That slimy bastard had not only taken a pop at my poor little defenceless mum but he’d gone and grassed us up to the law. The police wanted to take me and John down to the nick. Well, I wouldn’t
have any of that so I put my hand up and said I’d done all the fighting so they wouldn’t nick John.
I spent that night in a cell at Forest Gate Police Station. Terry pressed for me to be charged with Grievous Bodily Harm. He must have really hated me. I was shit scared and close to tears when they locked the door of that cell. I was suddenly all alone. I threw myself onto the half-inch-thick mattress against the wall and wondered how the hell my life could be so shitty. I cried myself to sleep that night, not because I was afraid of being in the nick but because I couldn’t understand how I’d allowed things to get so out of hand. And I just didn’t know how any man – even sicko Terry – could point the finger at a school kid.
Back at home my mum was in a terrible state. She was outraged that they could lock a kid up on the word of her estranged, punch-happy boyfriend. And she blamed herself for what had happened. But there’s no way she could be responsible for the rantings and violence of a man like Terry. The next morning the cozzers hauled me out of the cell and I gave a statement admitting what had happened. If I hadn’t stuck that pen in him then maybe I wouldn’t have been so harshly treated. One of the coppers said that pen turned it from a common assault charge to Grievous Bodily Harm.
I’ve got to say here and now the cops were fairly decent to me. They only cuffed me when they had to and they didn’t rough me up at all. Round where I lived you expected a few problems down the local nick, but this time they were as good as gold. I think they felt sorry for me because Terry was so clearly a toerag. But there was nothing they could do as he was insisting on pressing charges. One of the coppers pulled me aside and said
he thought it was a disgrace that a big fella like Terry would press charges against a fifteen-year-old kid. He reckoned I’d severely damaged Terry’s pride more than anything else.
I admitted the GBH charge so they held the trial within a couple of days of my arrest. As I had no previous convictions I thought I’d get off with something like a community service order. I was – and still am – a shy sort of bloke so all those people staring at me in court made me shrink even more into myself. I even caught a glimpse of that bastard Terry smirking at me from across the courtroom. I answered all the questions with a short ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and I could tell that was narking off a lot of the officials. Then there was my mum in the public gallery, close to tears. This was her baby accused of defending her against the man she now hated more than anyone else in the world. She’d earlier even tried to press counter-charges but the police told her not to bother.
The magistrate gave me three months’youth detention. My legs wobbled for a few seconds after he said it. I couldn’t quite believe my ears. Then my mum stood up and shouted at Terry: ‘He’s the one you should be locking up.’
I was taken away in cuffs. I was about to serve a stretch inside for defending my tiny, fragile mum against a six-foot-plus bully who’d tried to smash her to a pulp. Something wasn’t right, but I was too young and too scared to say anything. My head bowed, I just took the punishment. I was numbed and resigned to what had happened. I didn’t fight. I didn’t try to have a bundle with the guards. I just went quietly.
Minutes later I was pushed into the back of a dark blue transit van with blacked-out windows and driven off to Her Majesty’s Borstal in Rochester, Kent, which was – I would soon
discover – one of the worst youth detention centres in the whole of Britain. The screws picked up three other kids on the way there. Two of them were crying throughout the journey, which didn’t make things any easier. Meanwhile I sat in the back chained up like a rabid dog, trying not to look too worried. But beneath my brave exterior I was in tatters. I felt broken and wasted. And I wondered if I’d ever get my life on track again.
’d been told by some relatives before my sentencing that if I was sent down then the best way to handle it was not to talk much to other inmates. My uncle Pete said: ‘Keep your head down and you’ll get through it, son.’
And in some ways he was right. I quickly got myself a reputation as someone not to mess with. I was considered a big, brooding ‘psycho’ type who hardly uttered a word, and that suited me fine. I also made a point of keeping my eyes to myself because once you catch someone’s glance inside then there’s always trouble.
It might sound predictable, but the most dangerous place in Rochester was the shower room. You always had to keep your wits about you and it really was a case of backs against the wall. The bullies and rapists always leered at everyone in there. They were on the lookout for the weakest. I heard one poor bastard
being gang raped just a couple of cubicles from me. I couldn’t do anything about it because there were four inmates standing guard while this poor little kid was abused. And it wasn’t just sexual attacks in the shower room. One kid tried to stab another with an aerial he’d snapped in two and then sharpened up for an attack. Blood was everywhere as this nutter plunged his weapon into the other kid at least a dozen times. I don’t know what was behind the attack, but the screws came charging in and dragged them both away. The victim’s claret was still gushing down the floor drains as they rushed him to the sickbay. I later heard the attacker got a right thrashing. It was just as bad as that film
, which came out a few years back starring Ray Winstone. A lot of us called it hell.
The dorms we slept in at Rochester were pretty grim too. There were twelve kids to each room and all you had was a small bedside cabinet to put all your worldly belongings in. Naturally, anything of value was soon pinched. And there was a lot of farting and wanking going on at night, which didn’t exactly add to the friendly atmosphere.
One of my next-door neighbours in that dorm was this Italian-looking kid who constantly combed his hair. He really got up my nose. He had a sly way of looking at you as he combed his hair over and over again. Eventually I couldn’t stand watching him any longer so I barked at him to stop doing it or else I’d have to sort him out. He nodded his head, stopped and moved away. Then he started up again in the other corner of the dorm.
We each had a single bed and lights went out at 9 pm. Some of the kids were such basket cases they cried themselves to sleep which made it bloody depressing. A lot of them were burglars
while a handful were in for violence, including me. That’s why most of the other kids left me alone.
Most of us had a picture of a naked bird hanging on the wall by our bed. I also had a couple of weird faces that I’d drawn in art classes. But that Italian arsehole with the comb had photos of fighter airplanes. What a loser! One time I spotted his comb on the floor and threw it in the bin, in the hope it might stop him combing his hair all day. Bastard simply produced another one from his bedside cabinet.
The way the screws woke us up each morning at Rochester was a bloody outrage. Three of them would come in and start screaming, ‘Get up, you lazy little wankers.’ Then they’d start kicking the ends of our beds. Butlins it was not.
Despite that earlier advice from my relatives, I couldn’t resist sometimes looking the nastiest screws straight in the eye, challenging them to have a pop at me but they didn’t bother. They’d seen me in the gym and had heard the rumours about my past as a fighter.
My work duties in Rochester weren’t too bad because I was assigned to the garden. But two nasty incidents happened, which luckily the screws never knew anything about. One morning I was in the gym room, on a workbench pulling weights, when this other kid marched in and said I was on his bench. I ignored him at first. Then he started really throwing his weight around so I had to give him a slap with a dumbbell. I’ve never forgotten how I visualised it was the face of that bloke who ruined my life after I beat him in that game of pool. This fella went down like a sack of frozen chips. I walked straight out of the gym before anyone else even noticed what had happened. Later I heard this same kid being given a
grilling by a screw who wanted to know why his face was all mashed in. ‘I fell over, I fell over.’ He kept saying it over and over again. That’s how it went inside.
A few weeks later I was working in the garden when some kid decided to crack me over the head with a shovel because he didn’t like the way I was looking at him. I whacked him straight back with a flurry of rights followed by a left square on the face. The kid went flying but everyone just carried on working as if nothing had happened. A screw turned up just as this kid was getting to his feet. Just like the other kid before him, he told the officer: ‘I fell over, I fell over.’
Even without these incidents, my life wasn’t exactly a bed of roses inside Rochester. We had to be up at 6 am for a 6.30 am breakfast. Then it was straight off to work. I spent most of my time planting and digging up vegetables in the greenhouse. I really did try to keep my head down. I didn’t want any aggro – I just wanted to get home.
The sound of my fists pounding into the heavy bag soon regularly permeated the prison gym. I usually started something like this: tap … tap … with my left fist. I’d push my arms away from my body, but the bag would still swing and the top links of the chain holding it to the ceiling would start grating against each other and would squeak. Then I’d pop a right into the battered brown leather. It might not have looked like a hard shot, but the heavy bag would this time jump on its little chain. Once I’d got the bag swinging, I’d begin to pound away: left, left … and then right … WHACK; left, left … right … WHACK; left, left … right … WHACK. Air would wheeze out of the bag with every slap, the noise from the chain punctuating my swings.
Other inmates would look on, knowing that those shots I was inflicting on the leather bag could soon be beating out a rhythm on some poor bastard’s boat race or rib cage if they weren’t careful.
Each time I visited that gym, I got fitter. My face became ruddy from the outdoor work, running and skipping round the Rochester yard for an hour every morning. I’d have easily ballooned up to fifteen or sixteen stone if I wasn’t training, but now I was fit again, my optimum weight was around fourteen-and-a-half stone. I suppose you’d call it fighting fit.
I always trained in a T-shirt, old sweatpants and dirty white trainers, which I never bothered lacing up. Before I got sent down I’d appeared huge but shapeless – no neck, beefy shoulders, big arms and the rest coming out in all the wrong places. But being in the slammer turned me into a sculptured, toned-up master of the universe, if you know what I mean. Despite everything, I was sharper, tighter. My bulk was closing in on itself, huddling my frame. I felt compact and constantly wound up. I was on full alert.
My dear old mum came to see me once a week in Rochester. She’d always start off each visit by smiling at me and saying: ‘You’ll be out soon, son.’ Then she’d spend the entire visit babbling on about my brothers and sister and what was happening back at home. I couldn’t get a word in edgeways and I knew she was trying her hardest to avoid cracking up. I could see in her eyes that she was holding herself back from crying. Trouble was that watching her suffer made me feel like shit. It broke my heart to see her in such distress.
At the end of each visit, she’d give me a hug and I could feel
her shaking like a leaf, still holding back the tears. I knew that if I hugged her too long then she’d completely crack up so I’d sort of push her away. Sometimes the bad things you do are done for a good reason. She told me later how she’d then go home and sob her eyes out. She never wanted to show me how upset she really was but I knew all along. It’s typical of my mum to try and always be strong.
Meanwhile the staff at Rochester continued to prove themselves to be total wankers. If they could get one over on an inmate they would. It was all like a game to them and there were a lot more sensitive souls than me around.
There was one particularly evil screw who baited up a fight between me and a boy who was supposed to be the ‘Big Daddy’ inside – the kid no-one dared take on. This screw kept trying to wind us up to have a tear-up. He got his kicks from seeing this so-called tough kid bashing the shit out of other, weaker inmates. In the end, I fell for the bait and gave the socalled ‘Big Daddy’ the hiding of his life, which was nothing more than he deserved.
The only member of staff I even vaguely got on with was the art teacher. I did twelve hours of art a week. I couldn’t get enough of it: I loved it. It was like a release from all my problems, which enabled me to escape into a fantasy world and, believe me, I needed something to help me forget my troubles.
I specialised in painting faces. They were all imaginary, well sort of. And they all looked a bit bloody miserable. Many were faces of people from my past – like that bastard who slammed an iron bar over my head at the Pigeons pub and that arsehole ‘stepfather’ Terry, who’d landed me in borstal in the first place.
I had a special technique when I was drawing. I’d start at an
eye or the nose and then work my way out from there. I never knew what I was going to end up painting; bit like my attitude to life, I suppose. I’d just strike out with my brush or pencil and then see how the mood took me. That art teacher encouraged me a lot. He seemed to understand what was going through my head, which is more than I can say for any of the teachers back at school.
Often I’d end up with two faces looking at each other. Sometimes I even managed four faces on each page. Their haunted look reflected what I felt at the time. How could I have done pictures of smiling, happy faces if I didn’t feel it myself?
I also drew cartoons – some called them caricatures – of people in the borstal. I’d pick out people’s faults, like a big nose or a bulbous mouth, and make them look even worse. There were a couple of screws I loved painting in a really distorted way but I’d always tear the pictures up into pieces if any of them marched into our dormitory. Pity I couldn’t do the same thing to them in real life!
There was one huge, fat bully of a screw with a goatee beard who featured over and over in my cartoons. I hated him so much, I couldn’t get him out of my mind. Anyway, one time I drew a cartoon of him sitting on the toilet, looking like a big fat prat (which is what he was) and stuck it up on the wall to amuse my cellmates. I was asking for trouble but didn’t give a toss. The screw walked in one day and, surprise, surprise, spotted the picture, but the funny thing is he didn’t recognise the figure as himself, even though everyone else said it was a good likeness. He just snatched it off the wall and tore it into little pieces without saying a word. But news of my caricatures eventually reached the borstal’s counsellors, whose job it was to assess if I
was ready for release. Naturally, they believed I was still a bolshy youngster who might be a danger to society. I answered every one of their questions with ‘Fine’. I didn’t want to give anything away about myself. I’ve always been like that.
I eventually left the counsellors’ office knowing they had me labelled as a nasty, violent delinquent, not prepared to face up to what I’d done. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. I’d steamed into Terry to stop him battering my mum – it’s as simple as that. But the authorities never looked at it from my point of view.
About a week before I was due for release I was called into the Assistant Governor’s office to take an important personal phone call. It turned out to be my Uncle Pete. He said: ‘You can’t go back home next week, son. You gotta steer clear in case that bastard Terry comes looking for you.’ I insisted I wasn’t scared of Terry but Uncle Pete said the family had decided it was too dangerous for me.
So here I was, about to get out of one cage only to be dropped right into the middle of another. Story of my life, I suppose. Even after serving time for giving him the beating he deserved, the spectre of Terry was haunting me.
A week later I got out of Rochester. Me and two other kids stepped out of the gate and heard it sliding shut behind us. I thought to myself ‘Well, you’re on your tod now. No more nice gentle screws to tuck you up at night. Back to the real world.’ I couldn’t wait. I shivered, not from the cold but, as my mum would say, ‘Because someone just walked over your grave, Son.’
I was five-feet-eleven-inches of pure muscle from all that time spent in the borstal gym. I’d been capable of growing a
beard since the age of fourteen. I was a man in everything but actual age.
The year had started badly with that iron bar attack at the Pigeons that wrecked my boxing career, then I’d got banged up for beating up that bastard Terry. Now I was determined to start my life all over again. There was no turning back.
The few decent screws back at Rochester had told me it was the air you first noticed when you got out. ‘Air doesn’t have to smell of disinfectant,’ they said. ‘You think this is normal … wait till you smell real air again.’ At the time I hadn’t given it much thought but now I was out I remembered every word.
The same dark blue transit with the blacked-out windows that had delivered me to the hell hole was waiting to take us boys back to East London. No one said much in the van as we drove through Kent and then into the Dartford Tunnel. The bright florescent lighting in the tunnel made me squint. I was so relieved when we finally drove up into the grim grey of the East End. The screws pushed us out just by Bow Station.
Over to one side, near where the steps led up from Bow Underground Station, an old boy in a brown plastic apron was opening up a flower stall. As the van pulled away, I strolled over to him but he ignored me.
‘Got any daffs?’ I asked him.
They were at the far end of the stall, high up at the back. I reached across and took down a bunch. They were still wet, and bound tightly together with elastic bands.