They’d built a super prison on the marsh. It hadn’t been a particularly lovely marsh, situated as it was just outside of London, but it had been home to some tiny little owls with tufts on their ears and it had once upon a time been my home. It was my origin, you could say, and now there was a megalithic monstrosity designed to hold the most foul and dangerous… and the not so bad. There were people who’d written one too many political poems or signed too many petitions, people who had not been able to afford their rent; and others, who had cheeked the wrong person.
Opinions varied as to whether it was a hell-hole or a hotel – the truth of that, I suspected, depended on your crimes, who you were, and whether anyone had bothered to pay the price to upgrade your cell.
It’s big, a city in its own right really. A city were no one counts as a citizen anymore. A city were there were no rights. Babies were born in there, and they were not likely to get out; at least, not with their mothers – the fathers, more often than not, were the guards.
That was really how I came to be involved in it all, how I came to be in I.C.E: Incarceration, Correction and Education. I was the education part. I was teaching the prison tots their ABC’s and numbers; and their parents, too – most had fallen outside of a formal learning system. I was funded by a charity and had to take the abuse the guards and officers gave.
Because the hard part of working in The Prison wasn’t the getting in or the dealing with the prisoners – no, it was getting out again. The place was built to keep clever, manipulative and sometimes powerful people; in and the nosy press, public, protestors and crime lords out. The crime lords, especially.
When you create such a place, such a huge concentration of despondent people, and throw in a handful of political activists, a few religious zealots, and one or two who were just too clever for their own good – something happens. An ecosystem springs up and it becomes a place with its own laws, outside of the guards and the governors control but only just.
Revolts, and draconian reactions to them, where always thick in the air.
It could be sealed. No small-time nuke is going to break out this army of miscreants. It’s self sufficient and enclosed. I would go in, walking through three corridors set into walls thicker than any medieval military architect’s dream. It made the secret nuclear bunkers of the 1980’s look like pathetic paper-walled constructions.
The lighting’s drab, designed to depress and demoralise; and I feel my energy drain out of me as I walk through those halls, and I try not to start shaking. The fear hits – what if I ended up stuck here?
What if they won’t let me out? I’ve studied the construction of the place; my cousin was one of the architects. I know it can and will be swallowed by the marsh; all it would take would be for the Thames Barrier to fail, and no has been maintaining that for a while now.
I’ve never really been that clear on what I’m supposed to really be doing. Oh, of course I teach people to read and write; it takes patience and pretending that it doesn’t matter if they can not or will not or are too bashed up. I just kind of hope that my sessions give them a little respite from the harsh and unforgiving environment they have found themselves in.
And it’s so easy to find yourself within, and once you’re in, you’re lost.
Knowing all of this and being so very very fearful, it is quiet bizarre that I do it, really. It was an innocuous start, she was such a little thing but fed well. I suspected her mother is or was a favourite of who ever was in charge of food or above. Poor mite was what, 9?
And she was a puddle of jelly in the corner gripping her stomach and mewing. Her eyes were large and round when I spoke to her, full of fear. My mind filled with images of plague; disease was becoming a thing, a dreadful thing within the poorer areas of the cities and a prison population was a contained population, and I knew there was a fair amount of recycled air in the place. It was a perfect disease incubator.
Then I thought on what had happened with the poison at the food banks and kids’ homes and all the rest of it a few years back and I went cold. I called the guard and he laughed. Laughed showing yellowed teeth with slime upon them, his mouth open wide and the tongue raw and viscous. I knew what it was then and barely resisted slapping him.
Now suspecting it – I detected the metallic stench of fish. I waited for the guard to go but, without really thinking, I handed the mother my little kit; knickers, wipes, and two pads. Her eyes shone and I had to usher her to silence. I had just broken a huge taboo – I had given a prisoner something.
Of course the next day I brought in all I could fit, inside the books, laid out flat so that in scans they were nothing but book marks. Prisoners where not allowed tech, they tended to hack the internets with them, no matter how crippled the device was.
It took me a week or so to realise that I could not afford to buy pads for the entire female prison population, and the waste issue meant that we all risked being discovered. A little research later, and I bought a bulk order of various devices and reusable cloth pads.
It took me six months to get them to the women, a few at a time. The devices, they were a no go – there was no way to get them in. I managed three by arguing that they were mine each time, but someone suspected something and checked I had it when I left – I had to threaten to let them examine the offending orifice. Fortunately, the threat of menstrual blood was enough and they backed off, but I knew I would not be taking any more of those in.
My second order of material pads was also a disaster. Someone knew, but either they didn’t yet have evidence on me or they were playing with me. As evidence was not really needed any more – I was inclined to be paranoid and think they were playing sick little mind games. When the same skinny man kept turning up every time I did my shopping and pointedly looking into my trolley, I knew I was screwed.
Online ordering was no better; there were pointed traces left and I felt sick and cold, awash in anxiety. Just waiting to be caught.
It took a stupid long time for me to realise that I could make the material washable pads myself, and I set about reducing old bed spreads and dresses to sanitary items for convicts. I sewed after work, but never too late – I didn’t want to risk neighbours complaining about the noise of the machine.
I really could only smuggle a few at a time now, and the guards were becoming more thorough in their searches. I knew it was only a matter of time before I was caught. This added a weird sort of urgency onto my self imposed mission.
You see, the thing is that I had started; I’d already broken the rules. I say rules, because law went by the by a while back. It was a gradual and bad thing but there it was, so I did not feel any guilt for what I was doing, only fear, a deep seated fear that I would end up in there with those women, were the only respite to bleeding would be pregnancy, and maybe not then, and certainly not at the end of it all. Babies are born and then the women have the biggest periods – all of that without a few cloth strips they can wash out.
I had to stop myself grinding my teeth.
And someone already knew, I was going to end up in there or dead and that time was closing in. I could not leave the country, I couldn’t even leave London, not since the lockdown to stop terrorism. I was stuck, but not poor; no, never that, but not rich enough to leave, either.
So the urgency was kind of selfish when I think about it – the more of the damned things I got into the place the more chance I would have of finding something for myself when I finally ended up within.
Getting your head around something like this can take a while and I was only just starting to come to terms with my double life as a smuggler of female hygiene products when things started to get truly weird.
After a long and harrowing day at the prison I came home and found my door would not open properly. I had to barge my way in. There behind the door were clothes, and scraps of cloth. They’d been posted through the letter box; someone had to have given who ever had done it access to the building to begin with.
I scooped them up and dumped them on a kitchen chair and stared. They were old clothes, holy cloths, and some of it not too clean. I needed more material but cloth doesn’t just fall from the sky – where had it come from?
I waited a week. I washed the lot that first evening after a flea jumped out, but I waited before cutting and threading and sewing and another before smuggling. I felt vague alarm that maybe part of it was smart fabric, that it would report what I was doing or blow up in my face as soon as I started sewing – like those uniforms of all those poor police officers – the ones I wasn’t supposed to know about. The ones the “protestors” blew up.
But I couldn’t see any electronics built in, no wires or tubes. It was of little comfort, as neither had the police uniforms that went nova. I quaked and quailed but in the end I snipped and created and tried to stop the women beaming at me as they opened books and extracted their little pads. It was demeaning in a way I can not explain – for me, not them. Each grateful smile hurt me. I didn’t know what any of the women had or had not done to earn themselves a stay. There were going to be murderers and artists and doctors who spoke out; there would be thieves and abusers, and desperates and activists. Some would be more than one and I did not know which was which.
At the beginning, when I first started teaching them – that had mattered, had disturbed me and followed me home at night to haunt my dreams. But not by this point.
Here they were all just in need of something I could provide, so I provided. And mysterious parcels of material and old clothes continued to arrive and I continued to sew.
Then it happened. I arrived at the outer perimeter and the guard did not smile, did not make lewd comments. The one at the door did not pinch my arse or try and prod me with his nethers. No one was smiling, no one was making eye contact with me, always looking slightly behind me as if I didn’t really exist. I knew it was up.
I wondered about running but feared being shot. My heart thumped in my ears. There was a tremor in my voice as I spoke softly to my students, the little ones gathered for story time.
The man walked in then, he wasn’t like the normal guards, he was wearing a suit and no apparent stab proofing. Shaking, I read a story about a train and a plane and another about a teddy bear who gets lost. He smiled a half dead smile all the way through. Unlike the guards, he stared at me and at nothing else. For him I was the only thing that existed and that was somehow worse.
I felt giddy as I stood to go, the eyes of those around me told me that I was not the only one to fear. I got up to walk out. He stood; my heart leaped painfully and full in my chest as I noticed one of the little sewn pads in his hand.
“You appear to have forgotten your bookmark.” He said with oil slicked tones, his lip could not help curly up in disgust. I reached out to take it but he snatched his fingers closed, I staggered away as if hit.
“You know there have been rumours,” he said, “rumours that you have been smuggling the women contraband items!” I tried to swallow; I could not have lied if I’d wanted to, I opened my mouth to make a triumphant stand. He held his hand out at me palmwards whilst he examined the little strip of cloth. “but all I see is a little cloth strip used for marking pages. This must be easily lost – no? Always falling out of your books?”
I nodded unable to really think, “Tell me, these are crude, where do you buy such shite?”
‘I.. I make them” I whispered.
“Pardon?” he said tilting his head in an almost alien way.
I cleared my throat, “I make them.”
“Ah, I see, apologies no offence was meant – these little book marks can be made by hand yes? No machines?”
“Yes, it just takes longer.” I wanted to snatch the words back; it was basically a confession, his eyes held mine and the universe ticked around me.
“I think this would be a good project for the non-violent groups, good training, I.C.E. can not pay for materials of course same as they do not pay for your time but I’m sure suitable materials can be found.”
I nodded, trying to think.
“You should go now, before they lock you in,” and he grinned, his teeth were perfect and straight and gleamed. I wanted to whip the smug from him but I just whispered a “Yes, Sir” and scuttled from the room, not daring to hope that I was actually leaving.
At each door I expected the tug, at the perimeter fence instead the hand landed on my shoulder. “I hope you will not be offended,” he said quietly like a snake belly loose in the grass, “but do you know what your book marks get used for?”
“They use them as sanitary towels! I find that funny, there you are trying to teach reading and writing and they take what is necessary. I do not like filth in my prison and I can not sanction sanitary items for them but a craft project teaching a skill? And literacy? That I can. Enjoy your rags.” And he winked.
I watched him walk away, the guard had to “oi” me to get me to move.
So now they make their own little pads and I… I’ve slipped in deeper and deeper and bundles of rags turn up still and one day I will find out who has been sending them. The prison is weird, I think it is becoming something more. London is sinking though, and the marsh will reclaim its land. I still fear every time I go there, that they will not let me out, especially if they find the recipes I’ve been smuggling in.