I wake at 6am. My husband is sleeping sound. I hear the rain on the window. But I don’t need the blinds up to know its another rainy November day. I always wake up early – a left over from my days as a house maid. I have to be up early to get everything ready especially today. I’m seeing my son up in the Kesh. I go down stairs and get the porridge on. I set the fire for later. Some newspaper, sticks and coal. I put on the single bar electric fire. It does all right but its very hard on the electric. Hubby has the works van home and he will be in extra early to get his days load on and out. But he has an extra delivery today. Sometimes these early dark mornings remind me of that morning 10 years ago when the police came to the door and took my son, our son, away. My beautiful boy becoming a man in that god forsaken place. We didn’t even know he was ‘involved’.
I wake in the darkness bar the orange light shining through the wired glass. It is deadly quiet. The tin Nissen huts are freezing. It’s a Thursday in mid-November. In Long Kesh prison Camp. Compound 21. The doors will open at 7.00. Today is different. It’s a visit day. Instead of getting up and doing chores, then studying and some craftwork, I will train first ( a 5 mile run) and get ready for the half hour visit with my mother. My weeks allowance. Even though I’m in the 10th year of imprisonment these visits are still special. The only good thing about the 10 year mark is that I’m half way through my stipulated sentence. I’m on the home straight. I may be 27 but I’m still mothers youngest. I’m more proud of her each year that passes. I thought she would never get over my arrest and sentence. But each year she seems stronger, more confident. Assertive. She was never like that at home.
I still have his room ready when, god willing, he will return. Our eldest son is away working abroad which leaves our daughter at home. I check the cardboard box. This is his parcel. Some clothes, washed and ironed. Some food, especially fruit and sweets. Books. A couple of soccer magazines. He loves reading. Still football mad. I recall him singing, ‘he’s football crazy, he’s football mad’ when he was younger. Before the country went crazy. He was a good boy. Never in trouble until that awful day. He’s my boy and always will be.
We only get a Saturday visit per month when I can get to see my father, relatives or else friends. I get up in the dark. I have my trainers and shorts ready. I do some warm up exercises waiting on the screws to open the hut. We are all counted first thing in case someone went walkies in the middle of the night. We bounce about in silence. Then we out and off. Round and round the wire. 7 laps to the mile. It starting to rain. Its head down and churn out the miles. Once finished it’s into the showers quickly before the warm water runs out. The shower window looks onto the dark grey tarmacked yard. The rain beats against the window. A brave soul walks the wire. Can’t do 5. I walk back round to the middle hut. Its still bloody dark.
I have a part time cleaning job. I will get out early today. The boss knows fine well why I need the time out. The thing is that so many mothers either have , or had, sons in the Crum or the Kesh. Or God forbid, up in Magilligan. I will rush home and my husband, my loving husband of over 30 years, will pick me up in his van, at the local shop. I find I can’t carry heavy things, like his parcel the way I used to. Public transport isn’t so great going to the Kesh. We don’t use the buses set up by the organisation. Not because we fell out or anything, it’s just we were always used to doing things for ourselves. On a Saturday, Billy down the street, would lend us his car to go to the Kesh. Like so many people who know where my son is, they never praise or condemn. Life’s tough enough for us all. But many people will stop and ask about him and wish us well. I worry about not getting my lift. What if there’s a breakdown, more searches, an explosion, traffic jams. I cant miss my visit.
My cube mate is still sleeping. A regular Rip Van Winkle. 9am and the lights go on and its everybody up. People race for the boiler to get tea, the toaster (an upturned heater!) to get toast. The scrunch of cornflakes. The place buzzes. I don’t complete my chore at 10am today in case my visit is called. I get the good clothes on. Boots gleaming like old Joe’s baldy napper. A visit is the only time I wear the good stuff. Some weeks if I didn’t get a visit I never left the cage. I get a can of coke to bring down. My mother is always happy to have a drink of something once in the box. I kick about the hut aimless. I want to stay clean and ready.
Soon we are on the M1 and coming of at Sprucefield. I never knew these places but I do now. Up Blaris Road past the cemetery. Past the caravans. The ground is so flat. I overheard a visitor say one day that the Kesh was actually an airfield. Turn right onto the Half town Road and I get him to drop me at the junction with the Bog Road. I walk the last bit. The name of his firm is on the side of the van. And well. We don’t want to tempt fate – do you? The car park is busy today. Some buses are in. From all over. I try and get in- before the queues start. First check in the parcel. And a letter. I cross my fingers. A good screw will not cause too much heartache. There is a checklist of what can and cant get in. A bad screw will go through everything . Pick holes. Refuse stuff that we got in last week. Argue. Lucky today. Got that nice country man.
A screw will come to the small wooden nut at the compound gate. He shouts in to one of our lads who goes looking for that person. Psycho gullers down the hut. With a voice like that my mum probably heard him. I grab my coat and coke. I walk over to the gate and there are 2 others called at the same time. We walk through one gate getting frisked. Then through another gate and out to the waiting mini bus. We have a one screw per prisoner ratio here. And each of us has a security book which follows us once we’re out of the cage. The windows are boarded up in the bus. But we know from years in here were we are going. The screws chat to each other. The newer ones are nervous being locked in here with us. We have absolutely no intention of getting into them or assaulting them. Our visitors are more important than that.
Then I bring the visiting pass to the funny little hut with the small window. The guy nods me through. I’m in a large room with lots of cartoons painted on the walls. There are loads of plastic seats. There are 6 search boxes. I’m called forward by my son’s name. I go in and leave down my handbag. Take of my coat and cardigan. There are 2 female screws. I have my boots on due to the cold weather and they ask for me to take of the right one. They are OK. But there are some right bitches here. I cried the first time they upset me. I don’t cry now. I give them a piece of my mind. These two are decent. Its a quick frisk. But they don’t talk. Ones outside can hear what you say. They smile as they hand my coat back. I smile back. I’m in another large room. A Portacabin. I wait until a mini bus comes. My sons name is called and I’m up and away. Take my pass. The bus is cramped and noisy depending on who’s there. You can feel the excitement. The young girl seeing her boyfriend. Mothers visiting sons. Wives visiting husbands. Some young fellows up seeing their mate. Finally we are out of the bus and through a turnstile to yet another Portacabin. But this is the visiting block. I hand in my pass and am told ‘box 7’. I walk down. I have got to know all these boxes over the years.
We get to the visit complex. The usual high barbed wire, corrugated iron sheets. Rusting. Old portacabin style rooms. Put up on the stilts so we can’t tunnel out inside the 30 minutes we have which is under constant watch. We go in the search box one at a time. A heavy frisk. Examination of anything we have. Into the next box room and await the others while they are searched. Next its box number 7. We walk up a corridor. The visit box is about 8 feet by 6 feet with 4 plastic chairs and a wooden table. Screwed to the wall. Not a lot of room. There are no windows. We wait on our visitors coming in. The closed door opens and there is my mother. I am so happy to see her. A hug and a peck on the cheek. For heaven’s sakes mum, I’m 27. She tuts me away, smiling. We sit down beside each other. I wait for the 20 questions routine. “Are you Ok, are you eating sleeping, singing, dancing, etc, etc.” Yes, yes, yes, I’m OK. I don’t tell her lies but maybe I give the truth a slant.
I open the door and my son is standing waiting on me. I grab him and peck on the cheek. He says he hates it but he’s as glad as me. He looks well. He has got so broad. He tells me he trains in the gym, likes running and weightlifting. We sit down beside each other. I’m excited and sad at the same time. My son, my flesh and blood, wasting the best years of his life in here. But having done such a terrible thing. Politics –troubles or whatever, he shouldn’t have done it. I have so much to say and ask. He sits looking at me. I know he’s thinking ‘here she goes again’. But he’s smiling and that means the world to me. I say about all the family and yes, we still miss him. I don’t mention getting out or reviews or anything. That has started rows before and I don’t want that in these precious 30 minutes. I don’t tell him any lies but I don’t tell him the whole truth. Got to reassure him .
Then it’s into family news. Who’s sick and who’s asking for me. In terms of the neighbours its, who’s doing what, to whom and why. My mum explains what she has left in the weekly parcel. We are Special Category Status men. We wear our own clothes, get parcels, and are grouped by our paramilitary allegiance. People come and go along the corridor as some come in for a visit and some have just finished. Some days a friend will pop his head and greets my mother. Some banter and my mother is happy. I keep the smile on and reassure her that Im OK.Sometimes there’s a little tension as when bad /tragic/ news is passed on to a prisoner. Got to be honest and say that some decent screws read the signs and give a little privacy by moving sideways if a family is discussing the loss of a relative. We don’t get compassionate parole. Remember the day well that my father came in and his face said everything. I knew my granny (his mother) was unwell. I half lived with her when younger. She was the smartest, shrewdest, caring most lovely woman I knew. She had died in hospital. I had no chance of ever seeing her again and couldn’t go to the funeral. A pain of imprisonment. I had to wait until lights went out that night before I could cry. Silently.
The 5 minute knock. God, it goes so quick. I hurry and say I got this letter. Have left in money, any washing he wants done? Any messages for Dad? I’ll be up next week same day and time. Fingers crossed. One last hug. Then I have to walk out. The worst part. I immediately feel down. I’m walking away from my child. My grown up child. How much longer? And yet, while hes been gone for so long I feel we are closer than ever we were
Soon, so soon the screw knocks the door. ‘5 Minutes’. The fastest half hour of the week. Many of us have said ‘pity the year couldn’t go that fast’. Then it’s a rush of things that we should have said earlier. Next week’s pass and who is coming up. Now there’s a change in mood. For that short while we are happy but now the reality kicks back in. The bubble is burst. Im staying here. Mum is going home. A pang of sadness. How many more visits? How many years? I see her out the door. Then it’s back to the search box accompanied by my own private screw. Back on the minibus and that short, but slow, trip back to my temporary place of residence. This will never be home. I chat to the other two and swop stories of what has been happening in the real world. We jump out at the compound gate. It’s still flipping raining. Give us a break. We run over to the huts and get out of our good clothes. That’s it for another week. Back to whatever routine we have. Life in the hut carries on. Some play cards. Some are hand crafting leather. I have some studying to do and another essay to get ready.
We repeat the process on the way out. Through a turnstile, into the bus out of the bus, in rooms, out of rooms, through the huge steel gates. Walls topped by barbed wire. Its cold, dark and wet. I wonder should I leave him in more thermal stuff? Then I get out to the car park. At last! I turn up the Bog Road to walk out to the Moira road. To get the Ulsterbus back to Belfast. Hubby can’t wait on me but it’s a short walk but many days I am soaking on the bus. The bus journey gives me time to think about happier days and the children growing up. The trips to Bangor and Portrush. The bumps and cuts that got healed by a mothers tender kiss. But I have to think about going to the doctors about this lump I have. Im getting a wee bit more short of breath. He’s always telling me off about my smoking. My only pleasure, I have I tell him. One day a nice couple offer me a lift out to the bus stop in their car. I know their son is a republican lifer. A Provo. They know fine well my son is a loyalist lifer. We chat on the way out. They say they don’t agree with what their son done but just want him home. ‘He’s their flesh and blood’ and they cant desert him. I say I’m the same. Despite my protests they drop me in Belfast well out of their way. I say a wee prayer for them later.
First of all – a cup of tea. Later I will get my parcel and a letter that my mother left in. I never wrote a letter in life before prison now I write all the time. They are a highlight of the week. I keep them all. I meet up with my friend and impart the latest news from the homeland. We are locked up at 9 and given the usual head count. Its my lucky day. There football on the box tonight. That will break the night up. My dear old mum has left in some paperbacks. That’s me happy. Get into bed early and escape with Leon Uris or whoever. But I think of her and dad at home. What are they doing? How are they coping? I worry about my da more. Just a gut feeling. Lights out at 12. We have small individual reading lights but I turn in. I lie in the bed thinking about the day. The orange light comes in through the wired window. I quickly drift off.
I get back to our home. A two up two down which we are trying to buy outright. I never tell him about the price of things now and yes we do struggle with money. Never told him about the row between his Dad and me about money and rushing here and there and so on. We nearly parted that night. But we’re over it now. I get in and light the fire. Get the dinner going. And do a bit of cleaning. The washing can wait ‘til later. Before bed hubby and me have a chat. I wonder what my son is doing now. At least I know he’s safe in there. Not out running these streets. We go to bed. I am so tired. I pull the blinds down. I toss and turn as I have a slight pain in my chest. But I’ll not bother anyone with that. Just indigestion I guess. 6 o clock will come early enough. Eventually I drift off to sleep to the sound of rain on the window.