I looked up as the lady at the desk called out my name. The man in blue uniform behind me grabbed my arm and pulled me forward once more, starting off down yet another unbearably grey corridor… much like the one we had come from a minute ago. I twisted round to see the desk disappear out of sight as we rounded another corner, and another. Our footsteps echoed eerily on the prison floor, and I couldn’t help but notice the keys jangling at the guard’s hip.
Suddenly we stopped at one of the countless grey doors that lined the corridor. I stared up blankly at the sign.
“Billy Foster 11345.”
“Home sweet home…” laughed the guard grimly. “If you’re lucky, you won’t have to spend too long in here, mate.”
He fumbled with the lock and opened the door, stepping aside to let me in. I set my teeth, took one last look down the corridor, and ducked inside my cell.
The guard stepped forward into the doorway, blocking out the light from the passage way.
“Someone will come for you at six for an hour’s exercise every day, starting tomorrow. And you get one meal a day… other than that… enjoy what time you have.”
And with loud clang that signified the start of my stay on death row, the guard slammed shut and locked the iron door. I sat down on the hard floor and listened to his heavy footsteps as he walked off- free to go home to his family and enjoy his life once this shift was over. Bitter stabs of jealousy knifed at my heart.
Once my eyes had adjusted to the relative darkness in my cell compared to the brightly lit corridors outside, I inspected my new home. A tiny window, complete with iron bars, had been fitted up out of reach in the far wall. It let in a few shafts of the evening light, casting slightly eerie shadows across the bare floor.
I blinked. My cell had a total of two objects in it: A hard wooden stool huddled inconspicuously in the far corner and a broken bed, looking as if it had seen far better days, stood on the opposite wall. I could see the springs peeping through the mattress; ugly worms rearing their heads. There wasn’t even a blanket.
I figured all this made for some pretty uncomfortable nights. I sat down on the bed, and the springs creaked threateningly. Bouncing absentmindedly, I started to realise just how desperate my situation was.
“Will you shut up in there? ‘Cos you’re doing my f***in head in.”
The voice made me jump.
“Who’s there?” I called testily. I’d heard all sorts of things about the people in this place, and was pretty sure I didn’t really fit in with the whole child-murdering, hotel-burning population of my new home. For all I knew I had a serial killer for a next door neighbour, and I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of anyone like that… even if there was a thick wall and bolted doors between us.
“What’s it to you?” My neighbour grunted. Then there was a pause.
“So, what’d you do then?” He called in his deep tone.
I gulped. Suddenly my voice had deserted me. I’d been trying to push this thought out of mind… out of my memory forever, so I wouldn’t have to live with it for what was left of my life.
But it had to come out.
“I… I killed a man.” I whispered, my mouth suddenly as dry as it would have been if I’d just completed a hard trek on a hot day. Realising my companion would never have heard my feeble reply, I spoke again.
“I killed a man. I can’t believe I actually killed someone. And now I’ve been sentenced to death.” I stated to the wall in front of me.
“You think that’s bad buddy. I know your type. You never meant to kill him did you? You were probably just defending yourself. Or someone else.”
Tears stung my ears. That was just it.
It had happened when I was in town with my daughter. It was around ten o’ clock at night, and we were just heading off to ‘Luigi’s’- her favourite pizza place. Lucy had been joking around and laughing. Then suddenly she’d gone quiet. I noticed she was eyeing a young white man, wearing a black hoody and hanging around the front door to ‘Luigi’s’, warily. Then she’d turned to me.
“Dad. Can we go to a different restaurant?”
I had frowned at her.
“Why the sudden change of mind? I thought you loved this place.”
“Dad I do…”
“Then let’s go here!”
I had practically dragged her over to that restaurant. As we approached I saw the man square himself up, and when I stepped up to open the door he barred the way. That’s when I realised we had trouble.
“I should have listened to her, and then I wouldn’t be stuck in this damn cell.”
I shouted to myself, standing up and kicking the bed angrily. The man next door snorted.
“Believe me, beating yourself up won’t make it any better.” The there was a thoughtful silence.
“Hey,” said the man “You black?”
I frowned, fervently hoping I wasn’t stuck next to a racist. After all, I’d had more than enough of racism in the past few months. Hadn’t racism been the root of all my trouble, the very reason I was stuck like a criminal behind bars? The reason I was a criminal. After all, I had only thrown a punch at that man outside ‘Luigi’s’ when he’d called Lucy a “f***in’ black slag”. Of course he’d retaliated when I hit him, swinging out at me wildly, whilst hurling all sorts of abuse.
That had been OK. I’d been in fights before, admittedly not quite as heated as this and never stemming from racism, but I had been pretty sure that if the coppers had come, it was him they would have been locking away. Not me.
But then he’d hit Lucy. And it wasn’t just your regular punch, he smacked her right on the side of the head, drawing blood. I swear seeing her fall to the ground unconscious that night was the worst moment of my life.
Far worse even than the moments that followed. Seeing Lucy fall, I fired up all the anger inside of me and took hold of the man by his jacket, and, mustering all the strength I had, threw him against the restaurant wall.
I actually heard his head crack. That’s the moment I knew I had done something terrible, something I had never meant to do. And that’s the moment I vowed never to lose control again.
“Hello? I’m talking to you mate.”
My neighbour called again impatiently. I shook off my thoughts and replied.
“Yes. Yes, I am black.”
The man snorted.
“You know, four out of five of the convicted men that walk through those prison doors are black. The injustice makes me sick.”
I consider this for a second, ignoring the fact that this criminal was talking of justice. The very fact that racism was seeping into the very system of the law in our country made me want to puke.
I lay slumped on the bed, watching the shadows on my cell floor creep wolfishly towards the door. I figured it was getting late. It was bitter cold, and as I wrapped my arms around myself in an attempt to stay warm, I wondered just how long I had to live.
Morning found me curled up on the bed. It’d been ages before I finally drifted off to sleep because a new inmate had been brought to the cell next door at what I estimated was about eleven o’ clock. They’d put up quite a fuss, from what I could hear. There was lots of kicking and screaming- all of it incredibly futile. I made myself promise that when the day came for me to be killed I wouldn’t come out of the cell like that. I would walk to my death proudly and with dignity.
But the dawn brought new worries with it. I began to think about my daughter. I hadn’t heard anything from her since the day I’d left for death row. Last thing I’d known, she’d been in intensive care.
Suddenly I needed to know if she was OK.
“Hello?” I yelled “Is there anybody out there??”
Then I heard footsteps treading heavily down the corridor.
“Waddya want? This is prison ya know, not a hotel. There’s no room service here, buddy.” I heard the guard snort.
Taking a deep breath, I inquired politely about my daughter, trying to keep the frustration and anger out of my voice. I was finding it hard to get used to being treated like dirt, but knowing whether my daughter was well or not was much more important than any stuck up prison guard.
There were a few seconds of thoughtful seconds, then I heard the guard’s voice once more.
“Look buddy. I’m gunna do you a favour, and believe me it’ll probably be the last one you ever receive. I have a few kids myself, and I wouldn’t want any parent to be left in the dark when it concerns the lives of their children. Even murderous scum like you.”
I could actually hear the sneer in his voice, but I over looked this. My mind was far too full of worry for Lucy.
I sat down on my cell’s floor and waited. And waited.
At last, after it seemed hours, the guard returned. He didn’t say a word, just unlocked the door and walked in. That’s when I knew, from the look on his face.
She had gone.
“I’m sorry buddy.”
Tears sprung instantly to my eyes and my vision clouded over. That was it. Lucy was dead, there was nothing left in my life. Nothing at all.
I heard the door slam shut and the guard’s retreating footsteps. I realised with a jolt that he had left the door unlocked, and the light shining through the crack between the door and the wall frame beckoned me invitingly. Through my tears I could just make out the floor of the hallway outside.
But I didn’t run for freedom. I didn’t care. My world had smashed into a million pieces before my very eyes. The very ground beneath my feet now felt as unstable as my prison bed and I collapsed in a shaking heap on the floor, wishing I was already out of death row.
Wishing I was already dead.