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A Shout From The Attic: From Castle To Dungeon And Out Again - 5

...Out the big prison doors, walking down Gaol Street in Stafford, clutching a brown paper parcel tied up with string, was something of an ordeal because everyone in the street knew where you had come from...

Ronnie Bray is released from prison.

The Last Boiling

Life, they say, is full of surprises and there was a period of time in which I had more than my fair share of astonishment. The first was that I was released from prison a day early. To be honest, I don’t know if it was a day early or whether I added an extra day to my release chart. You know the sort of thing soldiers have when looking forward to their demobilisation and a day at a time is ticked off until all the white spaces are filled and you get to breathe free air again.

The day off, whatever its grounds, was welcome and in some respects made up for the six extra weeks I had to serve as an unsuccessful appellant. I was ill advised by my absent barrister in the matter of my appeal and it did nothing to sweeten my temper.

My discharge document stated that I was being discharged to the address I had at the time of my sentence. It was an old house run by a lady with a heart of gold. I rented the small attic bedroom on a room only basis. I had experience with small attic bedrooms. Every night I went back to sleep, my landlady had placed a saucer of sweet biscuits and a glass of milk on the bedside table.

Out the big prison doors, walking down Gaol Street in Stafford, clutching a brown paper parcel tied up with string, was something of an ordeal because everyone in the street knew where you had come from. I was not yet used to outsiders. The travel warrant issued at the gaol took me to Southampton, and then I hopped on a bus to Britannia Street and walked the short way to where the lodging house had been. I could recognise nothing that looked like home in the pile of rubbish on the wasteland opposite the gasworks. The house had been demolished and I was homeless.

I had a small amount of money saved from an income tax refund and my meagre earnings as a sewing machinist in the tailoring shop at Stafford gaol, and so I went to the guest house area of Southampton, where I found a place that looked friendly. I paid a week’s bed and breakfast money, admitting to being a writer doing research for a novel. I wasn’t, but it was the kind of thing I would have liked to do.

The week’s payment made quite a dent in my money, and meals were very interesting. It is surprising (which is where we came in) how a frugal meal can be exotic and cheap. Cheap was good. I discovered that the husband of the landlady was a police sergeant, so it sort of felt as if I was back ‘home’ under the watchful eye of the forces of law and order.

Being impulsive, and being cast on my own devices for days on end, and transistor radios being available as miniaturisation gripped the world, I bought one. It is impossible to buy a handheld ‘trannie’ today for as much as I paid for mine in 1961, which was eleven precious pounds, but it did mean that I did not have to sit in unwelcome and soul-aching silence.

My week at the guesthouse ended and my novel was not only not finished but not even started. But then, it’s not easy being a literary genius. Authors have to absorb atmosphere, think about life, the universe, the meaning of everything. I did a lot of absorbing, some thinking, but not much of anything else. On my last day I bought a local paper and found a room to let. It was in an old house in an older part of town with not much excitement about it, but it was affordable and I took it.

I had one room with a bed, a washstand and hand basin, and a jug of cold water. I could heat water and cook rudimentary meals on the single gas ring on the table. My slops went into a white enamelled bucket with a strainer lid. It was self-contained with a small cabinet at the side of the bed on which my radio sat and played night and day. It was a comfort.

If I were to be honest, I would be bound to say that I really didn’t do anything except enjoy my freedom. It was quite the sweetest thing I had enjoyed for some time. I culd go to bed, get up, and visit the bathroom anytime I liked. My time inside had lasted ten months during which I had no visitors except once when two missionaries travelled from Bournemouth to Winchester Prison to see me during the first couple of months of my sentence.

I thank them for taking the time to visit ‘one of the least of these’ for I was ‘in prison and they came unto me.’ One of the elders was kind enough to report to Esmé that I was the most intelligent person he had ever met. The fact that my intelligence landed me in gaol seemed irrelevant.

During my incarceration I received no letters from family or friends although I did receive a Christmas card from a stranger that had a profound effect on me.

Life in my room and in my aimless walking up and down the streets of Southampton was pretty good at first. It was a time for the utmost thrift, and when my money ran low even lower I began to be even more thrifty. I purchased the cheapest food I could get; dried peas, soup mixes, and lentils, which I boiled in my little pan on the gas ring, and ate them whilst sat on my bed listening to the transistor wireless radio.

Eventually, I laid on my bed, soothed by the music, but disturbed by the realisation that all my money was gone, and that my rent ran out at the end of the week and I would be homeless. I looked at my treasures: a small notebook without any notes in it; a portable Silver Reed typewriter, and a five-string banjo, my pride and joy, which I never learned to play properly, but it made more noise than a ukulele, which I could play to some effect. I vowed that I would never part with these essentials. They were to me, my loaf of bread, my jug of wine, and even my ‘thou,’ and what good is a singer without a banjo!

I looked at my food storage. I had about two ounces of red lentils left, and a couple of spoons of white sugar. I would not eat today, and tomorrow I would eat the sugar. Then, I would go as long as I could without eating. Only when I was desperate would I cook and eat the lentils. I was a man on the edge, but I felt unnaturally cheerful.

The sugar was delicious, if a little sweet. I lasted two days before I steeled myself to prepare to eat the lentils. It is strange how cooking a meal and eating it can be invested with all the fripperies of religious ritual. Utensils were aid out in liturgical fashion, water was drawn in hushed tones – I turned own the volume on the radio – and the pan was placed on the unlit gas ring ready for its central role in the ceremony.

With sacerdotal solemnity, I lit the gas, guarding the sacred flame from the draught that blew in form the open window. Igneous, the God of fire in cheap lodgings, was appeased; the flames licked the sides of the pan, hissing secret messages in an unknown tongue. The water waited forever to boil, and then I emptied the red lentils into the bubbling water. It ceased its stirrings nut only for a moment, then resumed its agitation.

Watching as the hot water performed its magic on the ruby pulses, my salivary glands throbbed in expectation of the feast to come. There was a buoyant air of peace and joy abroad in my room. Even the music was bright and gay. Oh, the joy to come! I had had hunger pangs from the morning before and the day was bathed in the still light of the sun’s dying glow. A fitting time for a sacrifice.

The seething was declared complete. My hand trembled as I turned off the gas tap and lifted the pan from the ring. Clouds of steam billowed into the room as I lifted the lid and gazed with longing on the swollen and tender vegetal fare that lay in the bottom half inch of the small pan. This was my last meal, and I was going to relish it. The salt and pepper were close to the plate from which I would eat my repast. I eased the bucket out from under the washstand with my foot, and slid the lid slightly to one side, tipping the pan as I did so, to allow the water to run out of the pan and into the bucket. It was close to the time. I could feel it.

Perhaps my trembling heart made my hand slip, the lid slide too far, and the lentils discharge themselves with obscene haste into the bottom of the slop bucket. For a moment, I stood as if in suspended time. Then, as the full realisation of what had occurred struck home, I abandoned the pan and fell backwards on the bed and laughed and laughed and laughed. The humour was intense and overwhelming.

When I had regained my composure, I left my room carrying the typewriter and banjo and sold them to a second hand shop. Next day, I went to the bus station and caught a long distance bus to Huddersfield, where my mother met me and took me home.

Where can we go when we are destitute? We have few options then. I don’t know much about pig husbandry, so I don’t know whether they eat lentils. Slowly, I began to see similarities between a certain well-known young man’s biblical predicament and my own situation. Our beginnings were somewhat different, but we had both come to the same end. We had both reached the point where there was nothing that we could do but go back home!

The young man had foolishly squandered his inheritance, and I had foolishly squandered my own poor wealth. He had had a wonderful round of sociability and excitement with fair weather friends, then been abandoned because he had nothing left to give.

My sociability was damaged at that time, but I made up for it in solitary pursuits, so both of us had wasted time we could have used with advantages had we engaged in loftier pursuits.

I went back to a mother I had never felt close to, who met me off the bus and took me home, and the other Prodigal Son returned to a father he found easy to leave. And both of us were received with gladness, and made welcome.


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