Xmas in the Kesh.
This is my 10th Xmas in the Kesh. For most of the others it is their 13th or 15th. As usual Xmas is that curious mix of having a great time while still being the worst time of the year. People recall previous happier memories and realise that we’re here for at least another year. Some have a minimum of 35 Christmases to look forward to. The run in to Xmas day is the same. People putting a good spin on it. This year is different. Some of the lifers have got home for the first time. While it gives hope to them for the rest it’s a curious mix of happiness, jealousy and resentment. We say in earnest ‘Hope you have a good time out there’ and in our guts and hearts we wish it were us.
Of course we make it as good as we can but as the years roll on there’s only so much smiles that can be worn, clichés used and records to sing by. However we have a Xmas dinner to look forward to and last year’s Xmas show was a good laugh. But there are less people this year and some are going home and some are hoping that this may be their last year here.
I live in a Nissen hut. They are large, tin, half round relics from the last war. I am a special category prisoner. The government in 1972 realised that the troubles were real, serious and here to stay. Hundreds and thousands of men would serve time here, be interned and detained while the political chaos ensued on the outside. I am in the middle hut in Compound 21. My hut is called Passchendaele after the First World War battle. Through the year I was lucky enough to get a ‘cube’ or room at the end of the hut. This was luxury- two windows instead of one. One of the benefits of men getting out if that more guys now have a cube of their own. So while one wall is tin, my other wall is brick. And its freezing at the best of times. We took the ceiling heaters down and use them as toasters!
I have my bed against the gable wall. I look out my window across a tarmacked triangle. The compound is surrounded by a 12 foot high thick wire fence topped by barbed wire. On the posts are lights. There are lights everywhere. Here, you do not live in the dark. Behind the first fence is a dead mans stretch. Behind this a 25 foot high concrete wall topped by the latest in German razor wire. Some people say this has been banned as illegal? Tall thin watch towers with searchlights stand at intervals along the wall. The place is patrolled constantly and we know the army is based not too far away.
The last hurdle before Xmas is that Xmas visit when parents or loved ones come to pass on their best wishes. It is an unusually bitter sweet experience. We are locked up at 9pm. We go about our routines. The usual wrangling on what T.V. programme we watch. There is one TV between about 30 men. I go to read a book or write a letter. Its Xmas Eve night and we while away the hours. I go to bed early to get up early and get unlocked at 7am.
Tonight is different. Tonight shows that even in the darkest of places one can marvel at the simplicity of nature and that the human spirit can still go free. I’m getting into bed and go to draw over my curtains. It is silent except for the TV at the other end of the hut. I look out. Snow is falling. It flutters down through the hundreds of lights. It changes the dark grey of tarmac and concrete to a beautiful white. It glistens and lies undisturbed behind the walls and fences. It settles on the barbed wire mocking it and making even it seem inane and unthreatening. I stand quietly enthralled by the sight. The Kesh is being transformed quietly, and for no cost, from a hard and unwelcoming prison to a new place. The snow falls heavier threatening to cut visibility to a few feet. Noise is reduced. I wonder what my family are doing right now. For some reason it reminds me of the film ‘It’s a wonderful life’. Even James Stewart would feel happy running about in here in the falling snow. I wonder if there is any relevance of the film to us in here.
Others now have seen the snow and soon shouts are heard in the hut ‘hey it snowing’. But we can’t get out. Not unless we take down the bars. But the screws may not see the romantic side to that.
And so the cynical and hard world we inhabit is softened by…. frozen water floating to the ground. But it gladdens the heart and lifts the spirit. It brings the memories of childish, school boy, snowball fights. Stirring memories that have lay unbidden for over ten years. It makes us happy for a while. I get into bed. I leave the curtains open. I drift off to sleep watching the big flakes drop silently to the ground. It’s my 10th Xmas in here and not my last. But the snow has made it one of the best.
( The picture accompanying this post is a painting composed by a UVF prisoner – I think it depicts the view from the study hut in compound 18 looking across to compound 19 ).