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Dog Days (working title)

Chapter One


He hung himself in his cell on a dreich August morning. I knew he was high risk. We all knew it, and they were supposed to be watching him. The report in a few months would doubtless mention failed procedures. Someone would be disciplined, and then everyone would forget. In the meantime, nothing could change the fact that Doug was dead. He was twenty-one.


An officer, sorrow pasted onto his craggy face, had come to the Education Office to let us know. I cried. Everyone expected that.


‘Your star student,’ the Maths teacher said, trying to put her arm round me, ‘and now he’s in the stars.’


I wanted to punch her.


The Head of Offender Learning appeared beside me as I printed worksheets. I pressed the button repeatedly, retrieving the warm sheaves of  ink-sweet paper which I lined up on the desk. She stood tall, offering platitudes in her polished Edinburgh accent.


‘Are you alright to do the workshop, Iona? We can cancel it if you aren’t.’


I did not look up, but could sense the woman's lifted eyebrows and tight smile. I delivered the answer her expression demanded.


‘I’m fine, Moira, I’ll do it.’ Because life goes on, right up until it doesn’t.


With a pert nod and neat, even steps, she left me.

The first time I’d seen Doug he was defiant, and beautiful. His skin was a tangle of tattoos. Words and images in petrol colours bloomed from his neck up and grew over his face and naked scalp. Twisting track-mark scars had cascaded the length of his arms, which finished, shockingly, with the slender fingers of a pianist. For weeks I could not engage him, but then he wrote a story. I submitted it to a competition and when he won, the lashes of his little boy eyes spiked with tears. He had pulled a tin from his prison grey tracksuit, and I watched the speed with which a rectangle of thin paper and threads of tobacco became a small cigarette, and how he placed it with reverence on the desk in front of him. Now, I pictured those same fingers tearing a bedsheet into lengths to lash to his window bars.

Twelve months ago, I had been a naïve woman in her mid-thirties with her own back-catalogue of trauma; an enthusiastic oddity. After a few weeks, the inmates’ blank stares had become piecemeal confidences, and then heart-breaking confessions. Before today, the only thing I had taken for granted was hope. The death of this man ended it.

Taking my pile of resources, I waited in the library for the men to file in. They were unusually quiet, and no one sat in the chair at the end of the long table. That had been his favoured place. The faces were expectant, their attention on me, rather than joshing with one another.

I had cried here in the past, multiple times, hearing their stories. On those occasions the men had called me soppy, but it seemed to mean something to them. At the start of every workshop since, they had asked, whose poem’s gonna make Miss blub today? It took new members a couple of weeks to see the joke.


When they first sat down it was usual for the men to give nothing away. Each of them brought tension from their respective wings. The writing had always unravelled it.


I scanned the turned faces. ‘How are you all doing?’


‘Did ye hear, Miss? Doug’s gone an’ topped himself. Wee idiot.’


‘I know,’ I said. ‘I’m so sorry.’


The men’s gazes were analytical, kind, frightened, angry. I fumbled with papers to disperse the moment.


There was an older guy. Angus. He sat in the middle, like the Prime Minister in cabinet, and had been one of the few people Doug seemed to like. A father figure, maybe. I couldn’t pretend to understand prison dynamics, but this grey-haired lag always got first pick at the biscuits I brought for the group. Now, he was a rigorously composed study of nonchalance.

‘Fuckin’ jail’ll do that to ye,’ he said. A couple of the others nodded. ‘Drives us all round the bend, bein’ locked up, no seeing our families ‘n that.’


‘I’m really sorry.’


What else was there to say? None of them was an angel, but I was sorry most of them had lives where crime was normal. Sorry society had failed them. Sorry I had freedom, and they didn’t, but most of all I was sorry that every one of them was stalked by the spectre of their own deaths, especially today.


‘I’m going to miss Doug,’ I said. Trite. And the truth. He had been exceptional.


‘Aye,’ said Angus. ‘Stupid wee kid.’

Ross, seated as usual on my left, gave a liquid sniff.

‘I’d hug you, Miss,’ he said, ‘but you know I cannae.’


‘Thank you, Ross, I mean that.’ I glanced at the officer. He sat with his back to the wall on the other side of the library, meaty hands holding the limp pages of a red-top daily paper. He did not look up.

I smiled round at the table of faces. ‘Brew, anyone?’ The offer made me a fellow rule breaker. Off their wings, the prison didn’t trust them with hot water and mugs, any more than they trusted them with scissors, pens or workshop tools, but I had seen other civilian staff make drinks. Angus, the only inmate who addressed me as “Iona,” waited by the office door and helped me carry the cups. I put one in front of the officer, who raised his eyebrows, but thanked me.


I returned to the group. They were spooning sugar from the bag on the table into their mugs. ‘Shall we make a start?’

Despite their tea, they moved slowly. I knew half the men would rather have had an extra gym slot than a place in a creative writing group, because they’d told me. I replied that I’d signed up to teach Art but was asked to do a twice weekly writing workshop instead, so we were even. For the men, gym was favourite, but slots were like gold, acquired from other inmates through fair, and not so fair, means. Most of this group lacked the currency it needed. One had told me that getting ripped was to stay safe in prison. Not Angus, though. His reputation seemed all the muscle he needed.


I’d seen this sluggish mood before. Sometimes it happened when there was bad news from home, or worse, no news. Sometimes there had been an incident on the wing with one of the weekend officers. The men wouldn’t share details when there was a screw reading The Sun a few feet away. Today was different. Today, death sat in the chair that Doug had left. I didn’t know whether to name it or ignore it.


‘Memory,’ I said, ‘matters a lot when we write. I’d like us to do an exercise called “Being Seven.” Where were you then? What can you see? What did you hear, smell, feel and taste when you were seven years old?’ I told them they had a few minutes to write down some thoughts.

The exercise was a good one, but in the past, it had opened up some dark places. With a previous group of inmates, one had asked, Why’d you do it, Miss? I don’t want to remember. It had been a risk, and looking at the men now, I regretted my decision.


‘If anyone would rather use a prompt, there are some here.’ I pushed a drawstring bag and a pile of laminated cards towards the middle of the table.


Ross sniffed again. ‘I’m just gonna write a letter, Miss.’


‘That’s fine.’


I took a typed prompt from the bag. Since I started the workshop, I always wrote alongside the men. I found it blurred the barrier between us and seemed to help them trust me. Without inspiration, I stared at a blank sheet of paper as the men opened their exercise books. The smell of prison entered my consciousness. It had a metallic odour, inevitable in a building full of metal bars, mixed with unwashed skin and hair, cheap disinfectant, and fetid mops. I glanced along the two lines of seated, grey track-suited men. Some of them had leaned over their papers and were writing.

Craig, stocky, pockmarked and red-haired, was seated next to Doug’s empty chair. He leaned back, his hands clasped behind his head. ‘He never said he was gonna do it, the wee bawbag. Sorry, Miss.’ He looked around at the other men. ‘An’ they already cleared out his pad. Can ye credit it?’

I thought of Doug’s writing, his books of drawings. The designs had looked like sketches for tattoos. ‘What will happen to all his stuff?’


Craig shrugged. ‘I dinnae ken. Guvnor’s probably pickin’ it over for his jollies.’


A couple of the men exchanged glances, and others shifted awkwardly in their seats.


‘I’m gonna write a poem for the big man,’ said Ross. ‘I’m brilliant at poems, me.’ There was cautious laughter, and everyone seemed to breathe out. The talking ceased as words were scratched onto paper. It had the quality of an orchestral pause.

© Geves Lafosse 2024

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