Alcatraz smells of piss.
“If people urinate on soft furnishings there’s going to be a smell,”
said Warden Malloy with professional patience. “It’s just a question
of getting used to it. There’s nothing we can do.”
John’s been here for three years. The smell is getting stronger.
Crazy Bob’s screaming woke John early this morning. Every day that wasted
old man wakes him early. Every. Single. Day.
When John asked if he could be moved to a quieter cell, the duty guard
told him – hey, surprise, surprise – “There’s nothing we can do.”
This is excuse number one in the retirement home handbook. It should
be written above the front door in foot-high neon letters.
Retiring to the relative peace of the common room, John picks an armchair,
gently lowers himself on to the seat cushion, and settles down. He feels
uncommon heat on his thighs. He stands, looks down at the chair and
sees the darkened patch of soggy cloth.
Great. Just wonderful.
Is it too much to ask that the inmates check their catheter connections?
Couldn’t they, for once, keep it in their bladders?
Entertaining sadistic thoughts, John starts to walk back to his cell
for a clean set of clothes. Guard Smith intercepts him, surrounded by
the soapy smell of Persil.
“How are you today, John?” she asks.
“Fine,” he replies, even though he feels like burning the building to
the ground and dancing on the ashes.
“Are you looking forward to your visit?”
“Oh yes,” he lies.
Whenever John smells Guard Smith’s clean clothing, he feels an urge
to bite her bare buttocks. He’s not sure why this is, but it’s a pleasant
diversion from the rest of the tedium. She’s attractive as well, for
one of them.
Guard Smith moves on, chasing after Supersonic Ivy.
When he enters his cell, John removes his proxy-soiled trousers and
performs The Test again. The cell is six-foot by five-foot, but he suspects
it’s getting narrower. If he sits on the edge of his bed and sticks
his legs out, his feet touch the opposite wall. He knows this because
he does The Test regularly, primarily for something to do, but also
to check that the room isn’t shrinking.
The result is the same as before. He’s starting to believe that the
guards are shortening his legs while he sleeps.
Damn. The son-in-law.
“Hello, Dad,” says Dandruff, filling the doorway. “Are you well?”
“Fine,” lies John.
Why does Dandruff visit him? Is it because of guilt for sentencing
him to life in Alcatraz? Or is it out of misguided loyalty to John’s
dead daughter? Maybe he’s lonely as well.
“I brought some flowers. They’re from the garden.”
Sausage fingers proffer a bunch of sickly blooms.
“Thanks,” says John. “Put them on the table.”
His son-in-law shuffles over to the table in the corner and places the
pitiful vegetation down with the same care a parent places a baby in
a cot. John stares at the roll of fat swelling over the man’s belt line.
Then the blah-blah-blah starts.
The slow background drone of conversation slides over John. He grunts
at regular intervals but pays scant attention. Dandruff is lonely and
wants to get things off his sweaty chest, and in John’s experience it’s
best to let lonely men speak, even if they’ve got nothing to say.
Is this what it comes down to? Is this how his life is going to end?
Is he going to die with the smell of piss around him, waking to the
sound of Crazy Bob screaming every day about rapists and secret fortunes?
Will he have to tolerate these pathetic conversations with this pathetic
man until he dies a pathetic death?
Not bloody likely.
It’s time to leave.
It’s time to go see Elsie again.
While Dandruff twitters on about cucumbers and compost, John formulates
his plan. He needs a distraction, something that will get that fat bitch
in reception off her arse. Maybe a fire? It’s
cheap and easy to stage.
Done then. A fire it is.
And then there’s money for transport.
Crazy Bob has some money.
Perhaps he could set Crazy Bob on fire?
No. Perhaps not.
The visiting hours pass pleasantly for once. Plots and schemes are John’s
meditation, his larcenous mantra. In the old days he’d pass the time
in solitary by working out a way of stealing the crown jewels. Weeks
would pass pondering tunnels and makeshift ropes.
But Alcatraz is easy. He’d barely break a sweat.
Possibly a hip, but not a sweat.
“Well,” says Dandruff, “I’ve got to be going. It’s nice talking to you,
John doesn’t answer.
“I’ll bring in those tomatoes next time. That would be nice, wouldn’t
After Dandruff leaves, John gathers his things. The first thing he does,
however, is put some trousers on. It’s a bad sign when visitors no longer
mention missing pants. It means he’s becoming too pathetic to worry
When he’s ready, he walks across the corridor to see Crazy Bob.
“Fuck off!” shouts Crazy Bob, sitting up in bed.
John smiles. He appreciates the honesty.
“Get out of my house!”
“I’m only here to rob you, okay? Don’t worry about it.”
Nobody rushes into the room. Nobody pays attention to Bob any more.
This is how John could end up. This could be him in a few years’ time.
An oyster of spit slides down Crazy Bob’s chin.
Where’s your money, Bob? Where have you hidden it?
John feels under the mattress and the sheets. He checks the drawers
in the bedside table. Then he spots the bulge in Bob’s sock. He pushes
Bob back against the inadequate foam pillow, reaching for the money,
and feels an unnaturally thin ribcage shifting under saggy skin.
This is John in a few years time: senile, wasting away, looking like
a concentration camp victim.
He grabs the money from the old man’s sock and backs away.
“You ain’t that pretty, Bob.”
There’s enough cash for a bus ride. That’s all he needs.
As he leaves the room, he grabs the metal bin by the door and a newspaper
from the table.
Brunhilda looks up when John approaches reception and quickly conceals something
under the desk. She has a small piece of chocolate stuck to the corner
of her mouth.
“Afternoon,” says John. “Lovely day, isn’t it?”
John sniffs extravagantly.
“Can you smell burning?” he asks.
The alarms go off.
Brunhilda leaps off her chair, demonstrating how impressive
inertia and momentum can be. When she’s standing and steady, her gargantuan
chest is still travelling upwards.
John basks in the noise. There’s always a siren when he’s running away
from an institution, a fanfare declaring his independence. Sirens are
a part of his life. He’d even hear them when he was in bed with Elsie,
working up a sweat.
“Everybody out!” shouts Brunhilda. “Everybody out!”
“Okay,” says John.
He turns on his heel and strides outside.
He stops on the porch, sucks the polluted city air down, and holds it
in his lungs. He savours freedom the same way he’s always savoured it,
rolling the taste of it around his tongue as if were fine wine. Even
filthy air tastes good when you’re liberated.
He pulls his jacket collar up, hunches against the cold, and strolls
down the road, confident that nobody will chase after him. There’ll
be a while before that bunch of monkeys get organised, and by that time
he’ll be gone.
He eventually arrives at the bus stop.
There’s no shelter from the wind. Some local thugs have smashed the
glass walls, leaving a carpet of sharp ice. The wind cuts through his
I’m on my way.
An image of a movie-style gangster holed up in a house comes to mind.
He pictures himself with a machine gun, smashing out the windows and
shouting, “You ain’t gonna get me, coppers! I ain’t never
going back!” This makes him smile.
A fire engine zooms past, sirens screaming and blue lights flashing.
It turns a corner and is gone.
He did that.
He caused a stink.
Are they looking at a clipboard and wondering where he is? Is Brunhilda
stomping around and shouting for him?
Does he care?
You ain’t gonna get me, coppers.
Further up the road, the front of a bus winds around the corner. John
steps forward. With luck he will get to see Elsie before nightfall.
Once on the bus, he wanders to the back. Two teenaged lads are slicing
the covers with a knife when he sits down next to them. He doesn’t give
a crap. The rules change on the back seats; you can get away with more,
like cutting the upholstery or feeling up your girlfriend. These lads
are like him sixty years ago, defiant, wild, and stupid.
There’s barely enough time for him to get warm before his stop comes
up. When he stands, one of the teenagers calls him an old fucker. He
doesn’t dispute this. He is an old fucker. It’s a fact.
It’s strange, but every time he’s escaped from an institution he’s headed
straight home to Elsie. He’d have one glorious, energetic night, and
then, in the morning, a young copper would knock on the door and drag
him back to prison.
Will that copper come and get him tomorrow?
The bus stops a few hundred yards from Elsie’s. John steps down, hunches
against the wind again, and starts his final walk. As the bus pulls
away, one of the teenagers gives him the finger. This pleases him.
That’s it lad, tell the world to stick it.
The walk is painful and slow but he eventually reaches the wall surrounding
Elsie’s place. Observing a lifetime of habit, he climbs over it, ignoring
the gate a few yards away. This is for her; she’d expect it.
He finds her stone, kneels down, and smiles with relief.
“I’m back, love,” he says, kissing his fingers and pressing them against
the marble. “I escaped one last time to see you. Did you miss me?”
There’s no warm embrace this time, only the silence and the wind, but
it’s enough for John.
He sits down next to the grave and makes himself comfortable. It’s cold.
He won’t have long to wait.
I ain’t going back, coppers.
Not this time.