SALUTE THE MAGPIE

PROLOGUE – PART ONE

It was two weeks after his seventeenth birthday and Ben Collins was being rattled around inside a three foot square, six foot high, metal cage. The seat that he sat on was hard, grey plastic and jarred him every time the van hit a bump or the driver touched the brakes. There was no cushion to ease the discomfort, since in the past they had always been torn off and there was no seat belt, a precaution that was taken in case a prisoner tried to hang himself.

Two of the other six cubicles were occupied, one by a thin, coloured youth who didn’t look more than fourteen and another by a heavily built Irish lad. At least Ben presumed he was Irish from his accent. He’d spent the first half of the journey banging his cubicle door and shouting and swearing at the driver and the surly looking guy who sat in the passenger seat. Irish was now staring intently in his direction.

“What?” Ben demanded.

Irish said something that Ben couldn’t make out and then turned away to stare out of the small, square, reinforced window.

What Irish made of him, Ben didn’t much care. Just turned seventeen, he was a nondescript figure in black jeans and a slightly baggy sweatshirt. A little over average height and average weight, short dark hair that was clean and had seen a comb earlier that morning. No tattoos, no jewellery. A pair of lightweight black boots with white stripes down the side.

Irish turned back from the window. “What you in for then?” he asked.

Ben shook his head. “Nothing that’d interest you.”

The Irish lad persisted. “Come on mate. We’re in this together now ain’t we. In my case it’s assault. Six months, although they reckon you can get out early with good behaviour. You?”

“Breaking and entering,” Ben volunteered. “Three months, since it’s my first offence.”

Irish laughed. “Is it? Your first offence that is?”

Ben shook his head. “First time I’ve been caught though.”

The Irish lad grinned. “Three months. They might as well not have bothered. It’s hardly worth you unpacking is it.”

“Unpacking what?” Ben said, gesturing to the empty cages.

“Yeah, fair point.”

The van slowed as it approached a junction and then turned right onto a narrow road that crossed an area of wasteland. Ahead, Ben could see a featureless concrete wall, which was only interrupted by a dark-grey double gate where it crossed the road. The wall was at least four metres high and was topped with a roll of razor wire. Both of them fell silent and watched it grow larger as they approached.

The coloured boy, who had been silent for most of the journey, suddenly became agitated, although Irish, who earlier had been shouting and cursing, fell silent.

At the gate, the van stopped and the guard in the passenger seat got out. He stood there for a moment, getting a breath of fresh air, and then walked towards the window that was set to one side of the gates with a clipboard and paperwork in his hand.

A few minutes later and they were inside. There were three sets of gates. The heavy outer gate let them into an area not much bigger than the van itself. A guard in blue uniform shut and locked the main gate behind them and then opened a second gate in front. The driver pulled forward and they found themselves in the loading area. This was fenced off, with a heavy chain link fence separating it from the prison itself.

Beyond the fence, the prison yard was deserted. It was too late in the evening for anyone to be outside. Ben didn’t have a watch, but he reckoned it must be about half-past seven. The back of the van opened and two prison guards looked in. One held the clipboard and paperwork that had just been handed in.

“O’Brien?” one of them asked.

The Irish lad raised a hand. “Yeah, that’s me.”

“You’re first.”

The younger of the guards climbed into the van and unlocked O’Brien’s cubicle. The Irish boy ducked under the low door and climbed out through the back of the van. Ben watched the three of them as they walked toward the prison building and disappeared through a dark green door.

It was five minutes before the guards came back. Ben spent it surveying what lay beyond the chain link. There wasn’t much to see – a stretch of concrete with basketball hoops at either end, an area of grass, much of which had been worn down to bare earth, and a set of goal posts. Ben looked for the opposite goal, but there wasn’t one. Around everything ran the featureless grey wall.

Ben turned to his remaining companion. “Hey, what do you think? You been anywhere like this before?”

The other boy shook his head. He looked particularly worried.

“Me neither,” Ben said. He nodded towards the grounds outside. “You play football?”

The boy managed a half smile. “Yeah, on the wing normally.”

“Well I wouldn’t worry too much. It looks like you’ll get a game at least. How long are you here for?”

Ben didn’t hear the answer as they were interrupted by the back door opening once more.

“Collins?” the guard demanded.

Ben got up, bent over in the confined space. “That’s me.”

“Ok, you’re next.”

As he climbed out of the back, Ben breathed in the fresh air. It was good to stand up straight and to be outside. Surprisingly the prison smelled of cut grass and summer. It wasn’t what he was expecting. If he shut his eyes he could be walking in a park, rather than across the concrete of the loading area towards three months of what?

Prison initiation began in a windowless reception room with harsh strip lighting. It was painted a grubby cream colour, with polished grey lino. A small fish tank stood against one wall and there were two Formica and steel tables in the centre. Around them were four red plastic chairs – the type that used to be stacked three rows deep in the store room at Ben’s old school. There was a drinks machine in one corner and half a cup of cold coffee on the nearest table. On the wall was a poster warning new inmates that if they bit the staff they could expect to have an extra twenty-eight days added to their sentence. Strangely, the room smelled of vinegar and fish and chips.

“Ben Collins,” the older of the two guards said, handing his paperwork to the middle aged woman who sat at the left hand table.

The woman looked up and gestured for Ben to take the seat opposite.

“Is that right?” she asked. “Ben Collins?”

“Yeah, that’s me” Ben agreed.

As the woman read through the court report and the other papers the door behind him opened and a male prison officer came in. He nodded at the two guards from the van, who must have been waiting for him, since once he’d arrived they left.

The woman’s pen flicked over the paperwork as she fired an occasional question at Ben.

“Any special diet?”

Ben shook his head.

“Religion?”

Ben shrugged. “Not really.”

“Atheist?” Her pen hovered over the appropriate box.

“No.”

The woman looked up. “What then? Christian? Muslim? Hindu? Buddhist?”

“Christian. Yeah, Christian I suppose.”

“Anglican? Protestant? Catholic?”

She looked up again when Ben didn’t reply. “Christian – other,” she decided, ticking that box and moved on.

Once the forms were done, the male officer took him to a side room and, leaving the door ajar, told him to strip. There was an examination table against one wall – the kind you find in a doctor’s surgery – and opposite that, what looked like a grey plastic armchair connected to an electric socket. Ben stripped off his sweatshirt and his jeans and folded them on the chair.

“Ok,” he called.

The guard came back, leaving the door open behind him.

“And the rest,” he said. “T-shirt and underwear as well.”

Ben hesitated. The woman was watching him through the open door. The guard laughed, but pushed the door shut.

“Come on. We’ve not got all evening.”

Ben complied, stripping off his shirt and boxers and dropping them on top of his jeans. The guard picked them all up and packed them into a plastic crate.

“Raise your arms,” he instructed.

Ben lifted his arms.

“Turn round.”

He turned round and faced the wall.

“Keep turning.”

Ben obliged and turned through 360°.

“Fine, sit on the B.O.S.S.” He pointed towards the plastic armchair.

“The Boss?” Ben asked, looking at it suspiciously.

“First time in here is it?” It was more of a statement than a question.

Ben nodded.

“Body Orifice Security Scanner,” the guard said. “You’d be surprised what it turns up from time to time. Mobile phones, drugs, butterfly knives.” He stood in front of the display screen, moving a lever backwards and forwards. “Ok, you’re clean. Off you get.”

Ben glanced over at the plastic crate that contained his clothes, but the guard anticipated his thoughts.

“No, not them. Once I get that labelled, it goes into storage. If you give me a minute, I’ll get your prison gear.”

He picked up the crate and walked out, leaving the door open behind him.

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Copyright © 2015 J. Hall, JRGM Publishing.

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