Authors: Brian Freemantle
The Blind Run
For Terry and Penny, with love
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet.
‘The prisoner will stand.’
Charlie Muffin did, but awkwardly. They’d allowed the familiar and mourned-for Hush Puppies during the trial, moulded and scuffed into comfort, but his feet still hurt like a bugger from the remand-prison boots.
The court was sparsely filled, because the entire hearing had naturally been in camera, no public and no press and officials reduced to the minimum, just the red-robed judge and the bewigged, raven-cloaked counsel, with their instructing solicitors behind. And the short, limited procession of witnesses, the barest of formalities, because Charlie hadn’t denied anything. There wasn’t anything to deny, after all.
And a deal was a deal.
The first to give evidence had been Cuthbertson, the Director he’d made to look a right prick, still pompous, still purple-faced, still blustering. Still a prick. Then Wilberforce, the deputy who’d deservedly gone down with the Director to whom he toadied, pastel-shaded as Charlie remembered, bony and sharp elbowed and with an adam’s apple that went up and down like an uncertain weather cone. Another prick.
It might have been a misleading impression, heightened by the emptiness of the court, but Charlie imagined the present Director had distanced himself from his predecessors. Charlie looked towards Sir Alistair Wilson. The Director looked back expressionlessly. Wilson seemed to find it easy to distance himself.
‘… Charles Edward Muffin …’
Charlie went to the judge, the reflection interrupted. Hallet, recalled Charlie. Or was it Habbet. Something like that. Port-mottled face and cheeks that wobbled when he talked; if he were allowed the red coat and the white wig after work he would have made a good Father Christmas. Yo Ho Ho and twenty years.
‘… upon your own admission, you are guilty of a serious offence under the Official Secrets Act, a traitor to your country …’ began the man.
Not true, thought Charlie. But they’d never understand; nor had they tried to. Their way it fitted into the box files they tied with pink ribbon and then sealed, with wax. It was easier, in a world of boxes and patterns.
‘… you conspired with the Soviet Union and exposed to Russian detention not only colleagues in the field but your superiors … the Director himself …’
There was a movement in the well of the still court as Cuthbertson shifted in his seat, embarrassed at the reminder. Best service I ever performed for the country, thought Charlie. Difficult to convince anyone of that, though.
The judge coughed, thickly. ‘… upon your behalf learned counsel has entered arguments of mitigation. Much has been made of a very recent incident, when, still undiscovered by British authorities and therefore beyond capture, you nevertheless served as a decoy and led to the destruction of a major spy ring, acting not only against this country, but the West as a whole. Much has also been made of your original action being not that of a traitor but of a rebellious, vindictive man intent only on retribution upon those in authority whom it appeared ready to betray you in their own right …’
At least the old bugger was mentioning it: he had to, Charlie supposed, to appear fair. Not that there was any likelihood of his entering an appeal. Not part of the promised deal.
‘… they are arguments and pleas that I dismiss entirely. The matter of your being a decoy has been put to every witness who has appeared before me and every witness has denied the suggestion …’
Because they’re lying sods, even under oath, thought Charlie. None of them would have lasted a day in the streets, the streets – and the gutters – where he’d existed for twenty years.
‘… there can be no mitigation, no excuse, for what you did. You are a traitor, to be treated as such. Upon you, Charles Edward Muffin, I am imposing the maximum sentence permitted me under the law, that of fourteen years imprisonment …’
Charlie looked to Sir Alistair, alert for the smallest indication. The Director’s face remained unmoving. Charlie felt a sink of uncertainty, the sort of sensation he’d known far too often.
At first, in the early days and weeks and months, Charlie’s immediate awakening impression had been one of the smell, the overnight urine and the odour of too many bodies too close together for too long. It didn’t come any more. He’d become accustomed to it, he supposed. Like he’d become accustomed to everything else. Recognising the good screws from the bad screws. And the important prisoners, the hard bastards who ruled the jail, from those who accepted that rule. And the all male marriages, some happier and more contented than those he’d known outside, where the wife had been a woman. And the weapon making in the engineering shop: knives honed like razors and spikes sharpened to impale an arm or a leg, even a bone if it got in the way. And the use of tobacco for money. And the black markets that existed: marijuana was available, because he’d watched and smelled prisoners smoking it. He’d not seen the cocaine, but he didn’t doubt that it was around because he’d seen the snorting and been offered it in the first month. And booze. Charlie knew he’d have to make a contact soon, to get a drink. It had been a long time. Too long.
The prison was never completely quiet: always something metallic seemed to be hitting against something else metallic. This morning it was a long way off, on a far-away landing and Charlie gave up trying to guess what it was. He lay with his hands behind his head, staring up at the barred window; in the growing light, it looked like a noughts and crosses board, set out in readiness. Early on he’d actually used the reflected pattern that way, a mental chequer board, playing games against himself. Not any more.
He wished he could remember, precisely, when the smell had stopped being noticeable. It was important – basic training – to count days and weeks and to record events within them that mattered. That was the way to survive. To stop being aware of time was the first step towards becoming institutionalised. And that wasn’t going to happen to him. He knew the days and the weeks, even if he couldn’t remember the smell: fourteen months, three weeks and five days. When he got up, it would be six days. Establishing a régime was part of the training, too; he always made the count as soon as he got out of bed. Fourteen months and three weeks and six fucking days! And not a word. No approach, no ‘don’t worry’ messages in the cells below the dock. No nothing. So they’d done it to him again. He’d trusted Sir Alistair Wilson; thought him a good bloke, like the Director who had preceded Cuthbertson.
Charlie stirred, aware of the metallic sound getting nearer. At least he’d lived: perhaps Wilson considered the bargain ended there. He’d only pleaded for that, after all, Charlie conceded; just his life.
Charlie looked away from the window and its neatly divided squares, to the table bare of any personal mementoes and the stiff-backed chair and the pisspot he couldn’t smell any more. This wasn’t life. Or rather it was, the sort of life he’d read about as a sentence and not thought anything about, because when he was free to get up when he liked and go where he liked and do what he liked it wasn’t possible to imagine what imprisonment for life meant. He knew now: Christ, didn’t he know now!
Charlie swung up off the bed, feet against the cold floor, head forward in his hands. Stop it! He had to stop the despair because that was another collapse, like forgetting to count the days or remember what was important in them. Despairing was giving up. And he wouldn’t give up: couldn’t give up. He never had. He was a survivor. Always had been. Always would be. Couldn’t break him. No way.
Never been this helpless before, though.
He stood abruptly, angry at the self-pity. Needing actual movement against it, he went to the table and took from the drawer the calender he was allowed. He was careful to sit, before making the inscription, and then circled the day which would give him his current total of imprisonment. Twelve years and nine months and one day to go unless he got parole. If he got parole. Three of the screws – three of the absolute bastards and one of them in charge of the landing – had told him the word was in and that he wasn’t likely to get a hearing for years, even less a remission of sentence. He’d fucked the establishment. Now they were fucking him. Bastards, thought Charlie; real bastards. Always had been.
The sound on the landings had changed now, no longer a meaningless jangle but the slapping against the cell doors after the slop-out bell. Charlie swivelled from the desk and groped for his boots, wincing as he manoeuvred his feet into them. He didn’t try to lace them but left them undone. He buttoned his trousers and secured the belt and finally put on his tunic jacket. He was ready before the key chain rattled against the door.
As it began to open, Charlie reached down for the pot. When he could smell it, the ritual had offended him; now it was automatic, just as it was automatic to shuffle forward and be by the door as it opened out on to the landing.
Charlie decided he would probably have been more disgusted if he’d had to share a cell. Not solitary, the governor had explained: apart from the cell, he was just an ordinary prisoner. It was just that there was no one else inside serving a sentence for a similar offence and it was sometimes difficult to gauge the reaction of the other inmates. Better to be safe in the cell, where he could sleep unprotected and safe from attack. But apart from that he would be treated no differently from anyone else. Charlie had thought it was bullshit at the time, like so much else; he didn’t think it now.
He blinked against the brighter lighting on the landing and went flat-footed out to join the line towards the sluices. To Charlie’s left, hung like spiders’ webs between the landings, were the protection meshes to prevent from self-destruction a prisoner who could no longer fight the despair, or the death of those who had infringed an unwritten law and might be heaved over, to avoid the irritating forensic enquiry which might have disclosed the clandestine activity in the engineering shops. To his right the cell doors gaped, like the beaks of hungry, unfed birds. He couldn’t miss the smell now: no one could, not even if they’d served twenty years and become accustomed to everything. Debris in a slowly moving stream of piss, thought Charlie. It was a fitting analogy.
Charlie had developed the prison walk, shoulders hunched and insular, his eyes away from any direct gaze and therefore possible challenge. He missed nothing, though. Never had. It was the beginning of the week and the shifts of the landing warders had changed; as soon as he rounded the bend, on the last run towards the sluices, Charlie saw Hickley and Butterworth.
They were two of the worst: bloody sadists. But clever sadists more obviously aware than the others that the prison was run by consent of the inmates and anxious to be friends with those who mattered, to the discomfort of those who didn’t. Hickley, the one who’d told him there was no possibility of parole, was at the sluice entrance, so that he could control the approach and Butterworth was inside the lavatory, supervising the actual cleaning. Charlie’s eyes avoided theirs; it was a precaution he had learned.