by J. Bushell
I step out of the prison and wipe the tears away. You hand me a tissue. Mine are all gone; I cried so much in there. I hadn’t expected to, just like I never expected this feeling of being a free woman.
It’s a perfect summer afternoon of blue sky and hot pavements. Around us mothers struggle with armfuls of screaming babies, huge bags, and pushchairs that are too hot to touch.
I was like them once, holding your hand as you toddled in to visit your dad. I hated those days. I didn’t want to give him something to look forward to. In my mind prison was all about losing your privileges, not enjoying opportunities to bully and intimidate the innocent. He was always going to come back out though, so I had to be careful.
You were just a child. You looked forward to his returns. He would take you for days out and buy you toys I could never afford; spoil you with treats and stories of adventure and how women had to be kept in their place. You were one of the few who never felt his fists, and I would not tell you where he went at night whilst you slept.
You were such a sweet child torn between the two of us. You would hand me tissues and say that one day you would make the world better, you promised. I’d squeeze your hand; it hurt too much to hug you then.
Your dad’s drinking finally caught up with him just as you started secondary school. As we stood at his grave, you vowed never to forget him. You said you’d make him proud, and I was glad that no one else was there to hear.
I told you that he was wrong, that a life of crime and violence was never the way, but as you grew older you stopped listening. You read things behind my back, became addicted to stories of horror and grisly true crimes. You joined a gang and idolised the leader. I watched you change through your teens and saw the prison beckon.
I stood by you during your rebellious years, those awful clothes, angry hairstyles and body-piercing jewellery. I hated your friends who trampled food into the carpets and stubbed cigarettes out in the sink, but I cooked and baked to keep them coming back so I could try to talk some sense into them.
Then, at eighteen, you moved away to university. You developed more confidence and held your own opinions, and I worried endlessly about wild parties and who you would meet now you were out of my sight. I told you that you were bright and could choose any career you wanted. I hoped you’d become a doctor, a lawyer or a pilot; any role where people would look up to you, in a different way to your dad. But you had that same inner fire that burnt him up; that wish to dominate and be in control.
Not for you the passive backstage any more. You stepped out into the limelight and tried different groups and societies, but ended up being thrown out of them for bullying, inciting or intimidating other students. Fun parties turned into excessive drinking bouts and late night fights.
I went to visit you after your final warning. I reminded you about the fast road into prison, and the slow difficult one back out. I held your hand and told you that I loved you, but if you ended up inside, I would never visit. You promised to change and make the world better again.
You were one of the lucky ones. Your head tutor recommended counselling, and they helped you to understand how your childhood had affected you. You changed courses and started to work hard.
I hoped that would be all it would take, that you’d pass your exams and get a good job in a hospital. For a while it seemed that all was well, you had everything you needed. Then one day you felt that it wasn’t enough, and the prison beckoned again.
I said I’d never visit you, and today when I walked through those familiar doors I wished that I’d kept my word. The building still smelt of fear and sadness to me. The small audience I joined looked as hard and unwelcoming as the plastic chairs we sat on. When you stood up and greeted us, you looked so much like your dad it hurt.
You said that as a child, prison was your second home; that you had always felt safe here, with everything under control, and you could be with both your parents without any shouting. You would stroke the walls as you walked the long corridors, pick off flakes of paint and ask why the men didn’t decorate it with cartoons or soldiers.
You told us what it was like to live in fear; to dread your dad coming home from the pub or a night job; to wonder if your mum would still be alive in the morning to give you breakfast. To run away when the neighbours called the police and gave you sweets. You talked of dawn raids, the shame of seeing your dad’s face in the papers, of how your mum tried to hold everything together and forced you to go to school and face the bullies.
Then the other men stood up and talked. Their stories of childhood abuse and neglect chilled me into feeling that there was no hope for humanity. Then they talked about you; the one constant person in their chaotic lives who listened to them, and never gave up.
I tried to shut those words out. The memories they evoked were like a broken pint glass ripping through my stomach. I never wanted you to spend your days helping men of violence, men who should be locked inside and not set free. I thought you had seen enough of what happens to families torn up and spat out by this system.
In front of the men, a large rock sat on a wooden plinth. The stone had been fashioned to a perfect square, and looked like it could be used to bash someone’s head in. I wondered how they could allow such a thing in prison.
It was the last man to speak that did it. He said that thanks to you, he finally understood there was an alternative to his circular lifestyle of violence and prison, that he could take all those years of boiling resentment and channel it into something else. He had suffered terrible abuse himself, and whilst he could never forget, he could now forgive.
He forgave all those who’d made his life unbearable, and thanks to you, his wonderful counsellor, he forgave himself for everything that he had done. That’s when I began to cry.
I saw myself in his words; the anger, the bitterness and the hatred. I saw the person I had been, afraid to stay, but more afraid of leaving. My desire to protect you as a child became one to control you and chose your life for you as an adult. I had been as dominating in my way as your dad had been in his, but you had risen above both of us. You walked your own path.
I forced myself to look at you when that last prisoner talked about how he found a sense of freedom. He finished by presenting you with the prisoners award; the large rock they had carved their names into. He said it symbolised a building block. All those men were due for release, and all were planning to build new lives.
New lives – that stuck in my mind. You made a new life, and not just for yourself. For that I’m proud of you my son. You said you’d make the world better one day. Well now you have.