Xmas Day in the Middle Hut.
A feature of the Special Category huts of the Long Kesh was that the tables for eating sat in the middle of the hut. Cubes or rooms set off this central area. Only once a year would everyone in the hut, all 32 of us, come together for joint meal. This was Xmas day. Most people ate at 5ish but today the meal was sent up at around 1pm. Generally it was a good time of the year but one overshadowed by the knowledge that your family had that empty chair for another year. However as the turkey was eaten and the banter started there was one little bit of compound culture that was still to come at the end of the meal.
It was accepted by all that on this day, and only this day, a game of cards would be played and the loser would wash ALL the dishes associated with the meal. At this time there were 3 huts. The end hut, like ours, had over 30 men. The half hut had about 12 men. As soon as the meal was over the pile of dishes would be cleared to one end of the row of tables. One deck of cards would be produced. The highest ‘hand’ would be out. And the cards would be dealt again round the table. For those good at maths this meant a few people got 2 cards while some only got one card. So to get a pair, or Ace, King etc. would pretty much see you out and safe.
At this point I start to worry. I never have been able to play cards right. But the odds are with me. Surely in 30 hands of cards I will get a good enough hand to get out? There is genuine excitement around the table. My first few hands are terrible. Those who play cards use what I can only describe as a gambling term, namely crap. Various people have pairs and are soon out. When the number of men reduces to 26 then we get 2 cards each from the pack. Someone shows a pair of Jacks with a smug smile. Until someone waits his turn and shows a pair of Kings. I’m still OK until the banter starts about who is the favourite. Over the racket I hear my name bandied about as the ‘bookies’ favourite to be making the long walk.
There are no washing up facilities in each hut. One wash hand basin and two toilets accommodate 32 men (and more at times) all though the night. The toilet and shower block is at the end of the compound. It has 2 large Belfast jaw boxes and 8 normal sized washing sinks. However, the problem is not to be carrying over 200 items of various plates, bowls, cutlery, etc. round to the sink. The problem is hot water. There is one large tank of water. Once the tank is empty it takes ages for it to reheat. And when men are constantly trying to wash, shower, etc. it can take all day. So speed is of the essence to get in while the water is hot.
My luck is not in. I cannot get a pair and this is taking for ages. Only for bad luck I’ve have no luck at all. At this point a person gets to know his real friends. They are the ones giving me the most grief and slagging. One offers to go round and get me a good fresh scouring pad because he says, ” I’ll need it”. There are 17 of us left, that means 3 cards each. Maybe now I will get a decent pair. I get a 3 of clubs, 2 diamonds and 4 of spades. I hate the guy who pulls out 3 Queens. Is this fixed? We keep going. It is like a knockout football completion. The closer it gets to the final the more pressure there is. The deal goes from person to person around the table so when I deal I know I’m not cheating but I deal myself an even crappier hand. Im hoping against hope here but it’s not working. There now is 13 of us left at the table. Four cards each. Its getting more like a proper card game. I still haven’t a pair. Maybe I should just get up now. More people from the other huts come in, just for the laugh, to see what sucker is sweating. My friends are very supportive now. One drapes a drying cloth around my shoulders just in case I need it.
Down to 10 people and 5 cards each. Surely this time? If there were prizes for terrible hands I would be unbeatable. There are 5 of us left. Funny enough I recognise that each of us would not be the regular card players of the hut. By now we get 5 cards each and get 3 more cards if we require. If you show an Ace you can get 4 new cards. But I just knew I would, on the law of probability, get a good hand. I have 2 tens and an Ace. I ask for 2 cards and get a ten and an ace. I feel the relief spreading over me. I wait my turn to show. I try to keep a poker face but someone asks me why Im grinning. I throw in my ‘house’. The guy opposite throws in his straight flush. Just to add to the atmosphere I can hear the rain bouncing off the tin roof. Everyone not playing is laughing. Suddenly it is the final. Myself and Bastardface (not his real name). Half the hut is with me, half are backing him. However I am a bit unclear at present if my friends want me to lose or to win. I get a flash back to watching Cool Hand Luke when he was trying to eat all the eggs and the crowd where getting in a minor frenzy. This crowd just need to see a sucker (aka loser) to do the long walk. (While also carrying loads of dirty dishes). The absolute worst part of this is that, if you lose, it is a full year before someone else takes on this mantle. No one, as far as I know, has lost two years in a row.
It is a straight contest. One hand. Losing hand will be doing the dishes. The only comfort I can take is that my discomfort is giving so much pleasure to so many on this special day. I am dealt a very strong hand. Like hell I was. I have to take in 3 cards. Usually a sign of a weak hand. He takes in 3 cards. Some hope still flickers. I look at my cards. I have the ace of Hearts and that is it. And there is no bluffing here. We have to show our hands. I do what a mature person should do. I lie. Two aces, I say. He says, ‘Let’s see’. I throw the hand in. He lets out a big whoop and throws in two pairs. The hut erupts into one loud roar. The crowd then rapidly disappears to relax, watch TV or whatever. A good friend brings more good cheer by saying I should take my time. The water is already freezing. I start ferrying all the dirty dishes round to the toilet block. There is one guy there finishing the ‘end hut’ dishes. ‘You caught too’ he says ? I want to say ‘No, Im doing this for fun’. Instead I say, ’ Yeah’. There is a hot water boiler in each hut. I get a bucket and take some boiling water round to the wash block. At least I can start until the water heats up again. It is a long afternoon.
My mind strays to next year as I scrub the grease from the plastic plates. If I was on the boards i.e the punishment cell, I wouldn’t have to clean one plate. Hmmm.