The huge metal gate is for vehicle access only. The screws crack if you, a prisoner, try to walk through the gate when it opens for a prison mini bus. Each gate has a smaller wicket gate for people to go through. The Kesh, a hard world of barbed wire, walls and gates. The gate is rusting. We don’t see it. Each gate has a screw that opens and shuts as needed. We will spend over a decade and more of our lives behind these metal barriers. We go through the metal monsters to see our loved ones. To go play football, talk to a solicitor or to go to the hospital.
My first impressions of this world famous gate is that it does not look much like a gate. But a trip to Berlin isn’t complete with a trip to the Brandenburg gate. I get a photograph taken along with many others doing exactly the same. The Berlin wall is long gone but reminders remain in the city. A concrete wall. A metal gate. For tourists. It prompts a memory. There are people from everywhere here. Asians, Italians, English, Americans. It’s a long way from the Kesh to the Brandenburg.
I am in a punishment cell. Solitary. For refusing to strip on a screws order. It is a 10 feet by 6 feet concrete box. A living coffin for bad boys. The window is covered over and daylight filters in. the air is fetid and the heat turned up even though it is summer. I ask for the heat to be turned down. ‘We cant do that’, even know we know they can. It is quiet. The bed is a concrete slab topped by hardwood. The mattress is taken out through the day. There is no chair. No radio. Nothing. I start by doing press ups and sit ups. Then some yoga. I think back to my days on the farm. My memories secure me. I walk back and forth for hours. I can never look at a zoo animal in the same way again. The day drags in. Meals come and go. I check for spit in the food. The sunlight is replaced by the lights of the Kesh. I turn in for a fitful sleep and get another day over. I will be back here.
I have travelled to Knoydart. They call it the last great wilderness in Europe. It is amazing. It is a three hour drive for me. I canoe along the long loch for easier access. I have climbed to the top of a mountain and there is nothing but rolling hills. They go on forever. There are no houses. No pylons. No walls. There are billions of midges. It is a world of purple heather , green ferns and hillside brown. Herds of red deer roam wild. One stag stops to stare at me. The loch below sparkles diamond white in the July sunshine. A gentle breeze cools me from my exertions. The sky is the brightest blue with wisps of white cloud. It is July. Warm and sunny. To the west is the restless sea and the Atlantic. North is the highlands of Scotland. This is a place apart. A long way from the Kesh to Knoydart. .
Day after day I walk round the wire wall that hems us in. We jog round the compound. 7 laps to the mile. Some have run marathons here. A lot of laps. In the evening before we are locked up for the night we walk and talk along the wire. It is heavy gauge metal, 10 feet tall topped with razor wire. Wooden posts every 12 feet have small lights that stay on all the time. Behind the wire wall is the concrete wall. Over 20 feet high and covered by the stalags look outs. A film producer could use this as set of a prisoner of war film. If we weren’t here. Today it is raining. The grey ground merges with the grey wire and wall into a grey expanse of cloud. We are in a grey hell. There is no colour. Only in our huts is there bright colours. Our identity. Our resistance to a world devoid of sensation. We have painted our walls ourselves.
I stand in front of the grave. He was my grannies big brother. He died in 1915. His headstone is grey like millions of other Commonwealth war graves here in France. I have a picture of him on my wall at home. I look up. It is summer time. It is quiet and beautiful in this small cemetery. I place our family tribute on his grave. I bought the flowers in Albert. They are a mix of orange, red and purple. They look great. Other graves have their small bunches of flowers. There are small plants growing by the graves. Outside the cemetery wall is a sea of red. Poppies are everywhere. The rolling fields are a mix of green; some dark, some yellow hued. They stretch on to the sky topped by a cloudless brilliant blue sky. It is a long way from the Kesh to Albert.
There are over 30 men in the half round Nissan hut. It is home for over a decade of my life. It is warm in the summer and freezing in the winter. There is always life in the hut. You can never escape from the others. In the Kesh you can never be on your own unless you go to solitary punishment. As soon as you wake till you sleep there are people. Lots of people. You share a cube (room), you train with others, eat with others, walk and talk with others. You go to see your family and a screw is in tow at every point. You see the doctor and a screw is there. The TV is on in the hut, a radio is blaring. Someone wants a record on the old Dansette record player. A group is playing cards and shouting. Someone is telling a joke. The hut is jumping. It is alive. At night the lights are out. The TV is off. But there are sounds. A man snores. A man grapples with his dreams. Or nightmares. I hear the pages turning as someone reads the night away. A tin pressure cooker full of people going nowhere. You are never alone.
I sit on a cold stone slab. The roof rises way above my head. There is quietness in the vast space. It is summer and the bright light invades the interior. The building is hundreds of years old and legend has it that St Columba came here to start his church. Each stone put up by hand. A building that seen past glories, went into decline and was raised again. I am relaxed. There is no one else in the abbey. It has power in its history and stones. In the distance I faintly hear the birds as they wheel about the graveyard. I can hear my own breathing. There is peace here. A place on the very edge of Europe. I am finally on my own. I am happy. It is a long way from the Kesh to Iona.