True Crime writer Stephen Wade tells the stories of some of the men he has met in prison: cons and screws, librarians and Listeners, ex-squaddies and Storybook Dads. An outsider on the Inside, he tries to explore the psychic geography of a world of rage, hatred, loneliness and boredom – in Reception, on the landings, in the gym and down the Block. Stretch is a book about seductive dreams and wrong decisions, heroin and sadness, resolutions, resignation and regret, with an atonal soundtrack of keys and gates, and doors that slam ‘like tombs’.
I have had to make my own skies in here. Staring towards the wings of struggling pigeons, I wait for a vision, to see what no-one else sees. Because this is oblivion, a mind in a void. Days are like those endless American highways: Like the driver, my head lilts and falls. When I was a kid, I was taken to a zoo. My heart thumping in my throat, I watched the liger And the tigon, each a hybrid rage in a few square feet. They walked their stinky few steps, heads shaking, Eyes strange but dead like gooseberries. Pad, pad, pad. That’s in my head now. I’m walking and wishing kids could stare at me, As a wonder, something from their low imaginings.
I fumble with the mini-disc player, Reach high for the socket (It’s used for hair-cuts) The flexes are knotted, and behind us, As we crouch in a corner, Cells are opened, it’s like falling timber. Officers bellow out exercise time. Dad chooses a story to read and send home. He’s nervous, choosing between Aladdin And The Badger’s Bath. Wearing his grey track-suit, He is not like dad. At visits though, it’s his face That matters. Now it’s his voice, At first quiet, shaky, hesitant. But now we’re into the badger’s story I’m not there anymore; it’s him and daughter. ‘Hello Rachel, it’s your dad here. I love you, and I want to read you this. Love, dad.’ He reads, then stops. ‘I can’t do this!’ But I urge him on and smile. He almost chews the mike to hide the noise. For five minutes, I’m not there at all And he’s not doing time. Carefree, he ends with a song. ‘I made that one up. She likes songs.’ I carry away eight minutes of happiness. Never thought you could measure that.
Listening? Well it’s not a confessional. Best eye-to-eye, and face-to-face makes all the words stay noticed. So that’s my role here, Listener. e ear on the wings, But truth is, watching the lips move and the eyes betray is just one thing. Mainly, you’re like a cougar in a jungle, every inch of you tuned to sense customers. Some sneak in, whispering, after jabbing your arm. Others write it on the app, in too many words. The worst cases have faces that show the damage. They all know I’m one of them, been through it, Got the tablets to prove it, know the right words. Best of all, they know I shut it and welcome them. There is training, yes. I watched films. Role-played, heard the professionals explain danger signs. The long words were forgotten; Anglo-Saxon stays. What are they, these lost souls? They’re me and you. All their distractions come out as lies, comforting; All their truths stay locked inside, safe as a stash. I say to them don’t ask me for fancy words, knowing nods. Pretend you’re talking to yourself, like you do at midnight. Then see yourself locking all this shit into a box, Hammering in the nails, and leaving it on a shelf. Call it the box of forgetting because memory is toxic. Yes, there are tricks, techniques, strategies. My pad Has a few feet of paper with guiding principles. But the ones never seen in the rule-book live here: In my head, shut away and always ready to show off. The real hurdle is blokes themselves. We feel scared of words. Except for the few workable, survival words, the ones used to win, or to survive, and most of all to pretend. We are skilled at fabrications. Someone sat me down once, in this mad-house, and she listened; never said a word until I stopped and shuddered as sobs shook me to a standstill. I’d like to do what you do, Miss. She gave me a smile. I think I made her day. We shook hands. So I listen: smile, nod, pull faces, express sympathy, and at the end of my day I feel some of the burden gone. Maybe some of theirs falls away too. Sometimes they tell me. My first years inside, I felt the hope fade away like dew. I remember the feeling: lost in an endless forest, the dark moving in to choke out the light, the way. I sensed the grip at my throat. I had to write about that once. Finding truth. The stretch inside can seem like that forest. No road signs, No directions and nobody to ask about destinations. I guess that’s what I am in here: a road sign, hoping my words are right, my reassurance honest as the face they see.
He ain’t heavy – he’s my brother Wealth, as the Romans had it, was impedimenta Things are nice, but change from smiles to burdens. Here, off Greetwell Road, what you have is small, Enough to feed routine and placate the boredom. People need to carry burdens, in the end: To prove something to themselves about being here, Where just waking up presents a puzzle every day, And finding the right pieces at the right time Leaves us with our childish tempers or invites That guy Mr Hyde who lives in our minds’ cellars, To pay a call and take the weight off our minds. Better to have a burden you can boss, like a wheel. And they squat there in the room by the gym: Like huge discarded wheels from some failed engine. Go on, fifteen K... bit more. I’m behind you. I’m here. There’s a burden we yearn for, weep for: a friend.
When I came in this place I dragged a prison issue large plastic bag; there was the lot in there- proof. I mean proof that I done something. I’d tried to be new. Tried to be different, sing and not moan under that roof. Now I’m walking out, what’s left behind of me? I’m just one more con what’s moved on, forgotten. I guess I tried to make them listen, make them see That I went inside bad but not lost, not rotten. No, nothing left in there of yours truly, no smell, No sounds, no echoes, no wisdom and no speeches; But no man can say in that shithole I raised hell. No, that I took in with me, and brought it out as well.
‘Poems of loss, of a sense of un-belonging and displacement and the effort it takes some people in this world simply to exist.’
The Wide Skirt
'the verse is both subtle and sophisticated, with an impressive formal control that rarely slips.’