|Jul/Aug 2004 fiction|
The prison was ready for a riot, and by dinner-time everyone knew it. They were just waiting for George Cannon to get it going. By half-past six the noise was rising in the canteen, and no one was caving in. The prisoners got braver, and the more threats the warders made, the less they mattered. It was so loud now that they couldn't talk to each other, and George watched them check for their whistles and truncheons.
Then he jumped up onto a table, stretched his arms out wide, and shouted:
George stood there for a second, his face looking up at the lights, his eyes closed, a joyous smile on his face. Then, as a ferocious chorus of cheers answered him, he skipped heavily down the long table, punching the air. He jumped and turned in mid-flight. He listened for the laughter and the rumble of boots on the floor. He kicked up his legs like a can-can dancer and knew that he could have been one. If he'd been a woman with the right legs, he would have loved that, lifting up his skirts for a flash, turning 'round to see the raging delight on the men's faces.
Then the riot started. George had no idea what it was about.
He usually liked prison, sometimes loved it, and only hated it when there was nothing to do. An empty cell was fine, because he could do press-ups and sit-ups and hold his breath and wear himself out till he could sleep. That wasn't having nothing to do. What he hated was sitting down for dinner and having to remain sitting, long after he'd finished his food. He hated the TV room because watching TV was doing nothing, sitting down was doing nothing. George's body needed to move all the time, even if it was just walking around the prison hundreds of times while the others had a smoke or played cards.
The other thing he needed was noise, just to check that the world was still working and there were more things out there for him to do. So he ran his plate against the bars of the cells, grinning in delight at the awful rattle. The warders and the other prisoners shouted at him to stop, but he loved the shouting, too. The prison was full of echoes and reverberation, so George went into the showers and howled like a jackal, and everyone hated that as well. He got into fights, of course, usually because someone was furious at the noise, but sometimes because there was nothing else going on. There was no softness on George's body, so he won most of his fights, but even the ones he lost he enjoyed. It didn't mean he wouldn't be coming back for more.
"You're not at it again, Georgie? I told you to stop, didn't I? You can't say I didn't tell you."
Another fight. If he won this time, there would definitely be yet another, what the other man would think was a decider; if he lost, he might still come back another hundred times. Mr. Perry, the chief warder, had tried to talk to him about it, but now he seemed to have given up. Mr. Perry always looked tired, because he had cancer, or his wife did, or maybe they both did. George had seen them once when he was working in the garden. They were walking across the open fields, dressed up against the cold. They looked grey and weak, and George didn't know why they wanted to go on living like that. He wanted Mr. Perry to forget about his wife—he thought it probably was her who had the cancer—and run like George would have done, run across the miles of flat fields until his whole body thumped with exhaustion. Then get up and run again, into the blank grey sky and to the North Sea where he could swim in the cold, rolling water. Mr. Perry told him not to fight, but he must have been wrong. In fact, Mr. Perry needed to fight as much as George did.
The only other person who tried talking to him was Rob. He was up for the riot as much as George, though he would never have got up onto the table. Most of the time George liked to go around with Rob because they both wanted action and a load of things to do. What he didn't like was when Rob got miserable and wouldn't get off his bed. He'd just sit there, usually with an old letter in his hand, staring at the floor.
"What's the point? Jesus."
"Come on, let's wreck the showers." George thought Rob would need something special to get him up and running again.
"Fuck's sake man."
"Come on. Let's move. Move." George tried to pull him off the bed, but Rob shook him off.
"Leave me, will you?"
"Come on." It was urgent now. George was desperate to get out, get moving.
Rob lay down on the bed and put his forearm across his eyes. He was nearly crying.
"It's my mum."
"Come on!" George knew when Rob talked about his mum, he could go on forever. Was his mum dying or something? George didn't know, he'd never listened.
"Didn't you ever have a mum?" said Rob. "What's wrong with you?"
Then Rob pushed him out of the door and slammed it shut. George ran for the showers, banging into the walls and shouting, "Jailhouse, jailhouse!" He laughed at the echo and shouted again and laughed again and kept going until two prisoners dragged him away. There was no fight, and George was disappointed because he needed to do much more before he could get to sleep. He looked in on Rob again, but he was still lying there, not promising any fun at all.
Rob was right. George never had a mum, nor a dad. He had no idea where or when they had gone. He'd had a lot of foster mums and dads, and they all hated him. Not cruel hate, just natural, ordinary hate for a boy so full of dangerous stunts. He broke everything and terrorised the other children, and he never stopped.
He heard that a lot, and he loved it. When they said it, he stood on his tip-toes, looked up at the ceiling, and laughed in triumph. He hadn't needed anyone else, he was a riot all by himself.
But he ate his food, so the foster mums were really pleased for the first ten minutes that they met him. He ate whatever they gave him and asked for more. Then, as soon as he had finished, he was bored and started to kick the table and then kick the other kids and within half-an-hour, everybody hated him. So he left. The last family was no different to any of the others, and he knew that the next wouldn't be either, so he left when he was just into his teens and lived anywhere. He liked the cold, he liked breaking into houses, he liked fights and stealing food. It was a grand life for a boy like George, who looked like he was eighteen and was free of everything.
George leapt off the table when the riot began and started to destroy the canteen. The warders were overpowered for now, so it was rapid, easy work. The tables, chairs and windows all went first, then it was into the kitchens. George hadn't been allowed to work in the kitchens, but Rob did, and he usually made sure the food was salty or sweet, how George liked it. Salty stew and potatoes so that he could taste it properly and sweet pink custard. When Rob made the custard extra sweet, George would have three big platefuls, and then he'd be good to Rob. Take him outside and have a two-man scrum down, pushing each other all over the yard for hours. Or they'd find some of the others and get a gang together, or else they'd fight. George almost wanted to look for the custard now and make sure it stayed safe, but there was no time. They had to rip the cooker out, that was the hardest job, then they could smash up everything. It would mean more months inside, but George liked it here, so that was alright, more than alright. He'd get solitary, but that was fine. He was happy to be here for more than a year.
He had got the year for assault. It wasn't assault, it was a fair fight and a good one too in his opinion, but he didn't care because he was happy to go to prison again. It happened in an Indian restaurant. He didn't usually go into restaurants or cafes because it meant he had to sit more or less still while he waited for his food. But he was just walking by when the smell hit him. He liked Indian because he could taste it properly and it always came quickly and it was easy to eat. So he went in and ordered and sat there drumming his hands on the table and breathing in and out very heavily. On the next table there were three men and a woman. They looked smooth and soft, all of them. The men were trying to flirt a little with the woman, looking at her with their pleasant smiles and talking like they wanted to be younger than they were.
"The guy from London from the meeting this morning saw you in the canteen. Said you were a babe, a real babe."
"Well, we all know that, look at her. We don't need someone from London to tell us that."
"Well, you're lucky to have me then, aren't you?"
"To have you? Now, is that an offer?"
"No. You're getting cheeky, you boys."
"Do you want a fuck?"
The last one was George, and it was a question he used a lot. Not because he wanted to offend, but because he hated hanging around, especially if it was hanging around for nothing like these soft guys were. It had got him into a lot of trouble. It had got him a lot of fucks as well.
"Do you? Do you want a fuck?"
They were all scared, though George was asking the question without too much malice. They would have sat there for hours in silence, but luckily for them the waiter had heard him.
He was big for an Indian and looked like he could be in a film waving a cutlass around or cracking open skulls with a club. George had never fought an Indian before.
"She doesn't want a fuck. She won't get one off these lot. Is my Madras ready?"
Before George had finished the sentence, he was being dragged out by the Indian, who was clearly up for a fight. Why wouldn't he be? Going back and forth with dishes of food all night, it would have driven George crazy, too. So he felt some friendliness towards the Indian as they started to punch each other around the head. Good heavy punches, no holding back. George was impressed. For a second he could look through the window and see the sad cases on the other table looking down at their plates. The woman was crying, and the men looked like they might be about to as well. He held onto the Indian, rubbed his cheek against the thick, soft beard and pulled at the turban, wondering what was really underneath.
The Indian was good, too good in the end, because he would have won if he'd fought as dirty as George. When George rammed his thumb into his eye, the Indian stepped back, howling, and then it was easy for George to take his time, to choose a position and punch the Indian through the restaurant window. The big man in his lovely coloured turban fell back, and the glass shattered and fell down over him. It looked spectacular, and George leaned back and laughed at the wonder of it all. He laughed for so long that he'd only just opened his eyes when the Indian heaved himself back up, like he was rising from the dead, and with a final surge of energy smashed his lacerated fist into George's mouth. So when the police came, George was still semi-conscious, and the Indian was bleeding everywhere and gasping desperately. A perforated lung and some other nasty business, which kept him in hospital for six months and sent George to prison. It had been a fair fight though, or nearly fair. But prison was alright, definitely alright when there was a riot on and George was the star turn.
When everything had been smashed up, George went up on the roof. This was what happened in riots. He didn't know why, any more than he knew what the riot was for, but he was sure this was what happened. So he scrambled up and danced like an idiot and courted the crowd down below. Hundreds of police had arrived by now, and the other prisoners were split up but not yet locked away. They cheered as he threw down slates, took off his shirt, and conducted the shouts of "Georgie, Georgie!"
Mr. Perry had a megaphone and gave out warnings to come down, but he didn't even sound convinced by himself. Then the fire engine came and the ladder went up. No-one came up to get George because they knew he might do anything, like kick a man off a ladder just for the thrill and the cheers he would get. When George had run out of things to do on the roof, he got onto the ladder, pulled and pushed at it for a while to make it swing dangerously over the crowd, and then came down. They jumped him immediately, Mr. Perry taking the lead. With five men on top of him, George was beaten for the moment, but he really needed to keep moving, so he embraced Mr Perry more tightly and kissed his neck. For a moment Mr Perry seemed to just let him, but then he shouted, "No!" So George laughed his screaming laugh and bit his neck. It was a deep bite, a mouthful of flesh, and there was warm blood in his mouth. Mr. Perry howled. George had made him come alive. Now maybe he could run across the fields, away from this wife and the cancer, to the sea. The screaming of the gulls and the cold dark water.
They got George to stop biting by banging away at his head with their truncheons. He laughed as he was escorted away, threw back his head and laughed. The warders and the police and most of the prisoners were looking at him with a kind of horror. Not Rob—he was grinning, and George knew he'd keep the food salty for him while he was in solitary. George kept dribbling blood and laughing with such delight. He looked at the faces, the grimaces and the shaking heads. What was wrong with them? He laughed all the way. What was wrong with them?