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The Great Escape
Michael O'Higgins


I SAW his girl Shannon, smiling at the door of the hospital, as soon as we stepped out of the van. The doc hadn't liked the look of Karl, and on the spur of the moment had decided to send him to the hospital. In effect, that meant screening for AIDS and Hepatitis.

Karl got only 15 minutes' notice, but it had been enough to get a message via the bush telegraph.

Even though she had probably scrambled out of bed, on the back of a text, and was a bit rough, she was still a bit of a looker.

As we drew level, she opened her hands, palms up, to show that she wasn't carrying, before casually linking into Karl's free arm. She did this without making any eye contact with me. Her eyes were like little burnt holes in a blanket, her pupils pinpricks, and she was bordering on emaciated, a sure sign that she was using.

She lost no time in giving him a lingering kiss. They both stayed in step. I had no doubt at this very moment her tongue was guiding contraband (most likely hash wrapped in clingfilm), into some recess in his mouth. I jerked Karl's cuffed wrist to indicate my disapproval.

The jury in Joe Humphries' case was in its third day of deliberations. It was their job to decide, whether he was the sick bastard who had shot dead a postmistress at point blank range to get his grimy hand on a few thousand euro. Knowing the type Humphries was, I had no doubt.

But it was a weak case built around forensics, and other circumstantial evidence. The word was that Joe would shade it.

The pressure was really getting to Humphries though . . . he was unbearably tetchy and was giving people around him stick. The length of the deliberations had cast a shadow over the whole landing.

It was a good day to get out of the prison.

"I don't know why he is sending me, " Karl was saying to Shannon.

"I mean there's needles going around the landings used by Deco Callaghan but you'd want to have a death wish to share anything used by him."

"Eric says that you're sure to get the virus."

"I'll break his fuckin' jaw for him."

"He says that the place is full of dirty needles."

"Eric is a fool so he is."

"When will you get the results?"

"They'll send a letter back for Dr McConville."

There was no test for the virus, only for the antibodies the immune system produced to fight it. If we went back with a fat brown envelope, Karl was fucked . . . it meant that he was HIV positive, and the bulk was the standard information pack, explaining how to break the news, and arrange for counselling and stuff like that. But it took time for the antibodies to appear. So a skinny missive would only mean that up to three months ago he was not infected.

I looked like a regular guard in my uniform. Karl, with his wiry frame, Ruud van Nistelrooy Man United top, tracksuit bottoms, and prison pallor, looked like a convict. The hospital was directly across the road from the jail. So you didn't need to be Einstein to work out what the scene was. But if I walked through the concourse with the cuffs visible, everyone would be all eyes. So I draped my jacket over the cuffs in deference to the little bollix. Who says the Irish Prison Service didn't have a little humanity?

The hospital didn't like prisoners hanging around any more than we did. Accordingly every prisoner was automatically triaged as urgent and received priority treatment.

After x-ray, we were then directed to a cubicle off the beaten track. Karl sat on the examination table with his legs dangling. We sat on a bench outside. After a couple of minutes a young doctor arrived and pulled the curtain over. I read my paper.

Shannon drank coffee from a paper cup and ate a Danish in between texts.

In the beginning, Shannon made a big effort to dress up, carefully applied her make up, and with her colour braided hair was very pretty. And in an environment where the predominant colour was battleship grey, very noticeable.

Karl strutted imperiously in and out of the visiting boxes. I have no doubt, that it was this very arrogance that prompted his fellow prisoners to break a taboo:

they slagged him unmercifully about what she must be getting up to at weekends. And, of course, being a punk, it got to him.

I didn't feel much sorry for him, mind. Karl wasn't a difficult prisoner, or anything. But he wasn't a nice young lad either. I mean he gave her an even harder time for looking good than the lads who were winding him up had given him. As if it was her fault.

The proof of the pudding was when he pulled her by the hair around the visiting box and roared at the top of his voice that she was a slut, all because when she opened her handbag to take out cigarettes, he spotted a condom. It was hysterical really, because everyone knew, Karl included, that she was turning tricks on Benburb St to pay for her habit. After that Karl was put on report. As punishment he was put on screened visits, which meant that he could only have closed visits in a box with a glass partition.

Nonetheless Shannon meekly followed his instructions to dumb down her appearance during visits. I understood why. The last person who had crossed him had got a Heineken bottle smashed into his face. And Karl got five years.

The doctor emerged after a few minutes carrying the phials of urine and blood. He signalled that he would be back shortly after he had run a few tests.

Shannon bounded across the floor in a flash. She pulled the curtain across. In the gap between the curtain and the ground I saw her lever off a boot with her heel, and the other with her hand. She stood for a few seconds before climbing up onto the table. Her ankle, which had a tattoo of a hand holding a rose, complete with a thorny stem and a little trail of blood droplets, was the only part of her anatomy visible under the curtain.

Almost immediately there was a noise, like a big dog makes when he is scratching himself behind his ear.

But the hospital didn't cater for mangy canines, and anyone coming through the door hearing the din would immediately realise what was going on. I let a roar for them to get on with it.

The beat was more frantic now, rhythmic alright, but still without any melody. When Karl eventually let his breath go it sounded like a death rattle.

Everything then came to an abrupt silent end.

Shannon hopped onto the floor and slipped on her boots. I couldn't help thinking, that she was probably well-used to improvising. She hung out of the curtain before blowing him a kiss.

On her way out she tossed a tissue into a bin. I saw the pink ring of a condom sticking out of it.

Karl sat there basking in the afterglow, in the way you do, when you have just fucked your woman for the first time in 18 months.

Karl probably wouldn't see 30.

He didn't own anything. Even the shirt on his back was prison issue.

But he didn't have any debts or responsibilities either. He didn't like Shannon working Benburb St. But even though she had gone with lots of men, she would never need to look for forgiveness.

There was something uncomplicated about their relationship that was alluring.

We left with a flat envelope.

At the front gate I was directed to go to the Governor's office immediately.

The Assistant Governor and the ACO were standing alongside him, all business.

"How did the hospital go?"


"Anything, " and he paused "anything unusual happen?"

The antennae were up. But their faces were inscrutable.

CCTV? It was everywhere these days. But I knew there was no way the hospital could tolerate it in a cubicle where intimate examinations took place.

"No, " I replied.

"So, is that what I will tell Ger Horgan and Willie O'Keefe when they ring back?" The very casual way he said it was designed to put me off my stride.

"I guess, " I stayed noncommittal.

But I was in the shit. Why else would The Irish Times security correspondent, and The Star crime corr be ringing? Had Shannon passed something really awful in that kiss?

"I dare say Charlie Bird will be on by lunchtime."

I stayed schtumm.

The Governor walked over to his desktop and gestured for me to join him.

"You know this site?" It was YouTube.

"Well I have heard of it, but I have never actually visited it."

"Take a look. See do you recognise anyone?"

The file was captioned: "Joy of Sex is nothing to Sex in the Joy."

Since it had been loaded at 11.48pm, it had already been viewed 2,987 times, 13 of them on this very terminal. I wondered what they had been saying when they watched it the previous 12 times.

In a couple of seconds we were watching Shannon straddling Karl and shagging his brains out.

The quality was surprisingly good. If you looked really close you could see a pair of shoes under the curtain. They could enhance that. I made a note to get rid of the shoes I was wearing.

"How do you suppose this happened?"

I shrugged. Blackberrys were the hottest contraband these days. Shannon, the little wagon, must have filmed it on her phone and then texted it into the prison.

It had spread like wildfire. It didn't take long for someone to get the bright idea of uploading the images onto YouTube.

We watched in silence. Just before they reached the point of no return, I heard a muffled bellow: "Hurry the fuck up."

"Who is saying that do you think?" the Governor asked.

"No idea, what is it exactly?"

"It's perfectly obvious what it is. The prisoner is having sexual intercourse with a female on your watch." The way he said fee-male made him sound like special branch.

"Well, I didn't see any of that, " I said, with just the right level of indignation of someone telling the literal truth.

"And how is it that you didn't see it?"

"Maybe I went to the loo?" I knew that was a lame excuse, but if I admitted that I had facilitated them I was history.

"The footage lasts over three minutes. Long time to be at the toilet."

I didn't reply.

"What do you suppose I tell the papers? That you were in the toilet wiping your arse? I am suspending you with immediate effect. There will be a disciplinary hearing at the end of the week.

Get yourself a good brief."

As I walked across the landing all the prisoners started to bang the pipes in their cell, followed by spontaneous cheering and whooping. For a moment I thought it was for my benefit. But such a cacophony could only mean one thing: Joe Humphries had been acquitted.

It was a strange phenomenon.

People on the outside just assume that criminals are hard and uncaring but, in my experience, most have a streak of decency too. The prisoners didn't even like Humphries. He was a bully who couldn't do his time. They saw his crime for the act of cowardice it was. They cheered alright, but only for a victory over a system they hated.

For years, I had watched judges direct verdicts of not guilty, on technicalities. But prisoners only saw judges, courts and lawyers as cogs in a bigger wheel which ground them to dust. It was for the same reason that Shannon had never once acknowledged me at the hospital. It was nothing personal. Nor was that confined to inmates. The Governor's description of sex with a female, when he well knew it was Shannon, was the same mindset.

I could already see the headlines in tomorrow's papers:

"Screw Keeps Nix While Inmate Has Sex in A&E". I would be sacked and there would be questions asked in the Dail. I could drag it out for a year or two on full pay. And then resign just before all the legal manoeuvres were exhausted. But I had already decided I wasn't going to do that.

I went straight to my locker and gathered up all my bits and pieces. I was never coming back here. For 20 years I had been a turnkey. My neck and back were scarred by an inmate who threw boiling water laced with sugar over me. I had cut down the sheets from which five prisoners (Fleming, Walsh, Kinch, Fahy, Williams Anita) had hung, and seen others turned blue, choked on their own vomit after an overdose. My first day I near shit myself. It didn't take very long to learn to swagger. It took a lot longer to realise I was doing a job, the prisoners were doing their time, and that we were all in this together. For now, I felt elated, a bit like a prisoner must feel when an appeal court unexpectedly quashes his conviction and he is free to go. Maybe later I would feel differently. But, I didn't think so.

How to enter New Irish Writing, edited by chief critic Ciaran Carty, is published on the first Sunday of every month and is open to writers who are Irish or who are resident in Ireland. All stories published will be eligible for Hennessy Literary Awards, which will be announced in April 2008.

Stories should not exceed 2,500 words.

Up to six poems may be submitted.

Address entries (with a SAE) to:

New Irish Writing, Sunday Tribune, 15 Lower Baggot Street, Dublin 2.

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