Short Story Written by Nicoleta Marangou
When a then 21-year-old Margaret, was sent to prison for the third time, almost eight years ago; parole seemed a lifetime away. Now sheâ€™s only days away from her release and Senior Superintendent Martin is determined to keep â€˜born criminalsâ€™ behind bars, even if that means provoking them a little. Margaretâ€™s patience is wearing thin, her temper like a ticking time bomb. Will the officersâ€™ probing push her over the edge, so close to her release?
525,000 moments so dear
How do you measure? Measure a year?
This song plays in my head each morning, as I scratch another day off on the wall. Only for me, itâ€™s been 4,207,680 minutes. Thatâ€™s right eight years. Eight years in the same cell, and only three days to go. Well, 4,000 minutes to be exact!
Yep, the fact that I’m counting in minutes sums up my time here.
I stand beside my freshly made bed.
You can hear his footsteps coming down the hallway, and he buzzes himself into my cell. His name is Senior Superintendent Martin, his arrogance radiates like a bad odour filling the room.
â€œWell, isnâ€™t it a beautiful morning, the sun is shining?â€
After eight years in this joint, I know better than to say anything. Simply let him yap on and donâ€™t say a word.
â€œOk, let’s skip the chit-chat, we have a new officer; give her a hard time and Iâ€™ll make your time hell, is that clear?â€
I nod, he calls her in, a young baby-faced woman no more than 20-years-old walks in.
“Her name is Officer Tess,” she shyly waves as the Superintendent “know-it-all” walks out. Tess stands there awkwardly. He whistles and she stumbles out behind him.
Yep, I give her two days before her innocence; her optimism and hopes all come crashing down, especially when she realizes people arenâ€™t here to be changed, theyâ€™re here to be punished.
Itâ€™s breakfast time. I get ready to eat my two dry, untoasted slices of bread, and sachets of jam and butter. I squeeze the butter on first, spreading it to the edges by rubbing the other slice of bread against it. You donâ€™t need to be a genius to know why we donâ€™t get to use knives or spoons in here.
Out of nowhere, a fight breaks out to my left. I glance up towards Officer Tess, sheâ€™s tempted to jump in, but Superintendent stops her; shakes his head, and grins as he watches on. She looks distraught, little does she know Mr. â€˜know-at-all-intendentâ€™ believes criminals are born this way.
Donâ€™t get me wrong, I was a violent kid. At eight, my parents used to belt us; belts, extension cords, hoses, you name it! At ten, my older brother wanted me to obey him, and when I said no, heâ€™d belt me, just the same. Taught me, respect! Pfft NOT! Taught me, the older you get, the more respect you can DEMAND. Sure, it made me tougher and taught me to fight. I thought it made me fearless, merciless, a â€˜rebelâ€™. At twelve, I left my family because I couldnâ€™t stand the mood swings. One day Iâ€™m praised, the next Iâ€™m invisible. I wanted to feel a part of somethingâ€¦ a group, a clanâ€¦ a real family. By my teens, I was on the streets, doing whatever my â€˜street familyâ€™ told me to do. After all, I knew the bigger they are, the wiser it was to listen.
Maybe heâ€™s right, maybe we are born this way? I mean, look where I ended up.
I finish spreading my jam on my slices of bread, and I take a bite. I look inside and see a thin strip of jam between all this white bread. It reminded me; he is wrong, weâ€™re not born bad. Sure, the environment plays a big part, but even in the worse environments, thereâ€™s a little light trying to guide you, from one end to the other.
Mama Rose was that light for me, but I didnâ€™t know it at the time; she owned the sweet shop at the end of my street. Iâ€™d go in there completely terrified because she could see past the tough exterior and straight into my damaged, beaten soul. I would always go in there; my head glued to the ground, and my eyes occasionally popping up to glance at the cakes. I giggle at the memory, and a smile passes my face as I squeeze my sandwich tighter.
Before Iâ€™d leave, she always let me pick something from the store to have, and Iâ€™d always choose her homemade chocolate cake. Iâ€™ll never forget it; it was rich, fluffy, with perfectly rolled chocolate flakes on top.
Over the years, I realized everyone gets sent a messenger, and itâ€™s not always the same person twice, but itâ€™s up to you to listen to it or not. The reality is, yes, my parents belting me was the start of my troubles, but when I decided to do the same, that’s when it changed me.
BAM! Superintendent slams the baton on the table in front of me. I jump out of my thoughts, and heâ€™s right up in my face.
â€œWhatâ€™s so funny? I wouldnâ€™t be a smarty-pants, days away from your release.â€ He takes a deep breath and stands tall, â€œbut I guess it wonâ€™t be long before youâ€™ll be back in the comfort of these four walls. I mean this is home, isnâ€™t it? No need to worry about a roof over your head, work, or food? All you have to do is fight your way to the top, mmm, heaven.â€
I clench my jaw, clutch my fists, his eyes shift to my fists.
â€œNow, now Iâ€™d think twice, you donâ€™t want to assault an officer, do you?â€
He reaches over and ruffles my hair; this isnâ€™t good, if I do nothing, it gives the rest of the inmates’ permission to walk all over me. I want out of this joint and I canâ€™t if I fight so close to parole!
The teasing is unbearable, itâ€™s like that endless itch you get on your leg that wonâ€™t go away unless you scratch it. And if you ignore it, it builds into a knee-jerk reactionâ€¦AHHH, I spring up out of my seat, and in that split-second, I grab the tray, break it in half, and jump onto the table.
Officer Tess jumps in front of the Superintendent â€˜know-it-allâ€™ and the siren sounds. The rest of the inmates hype up with adrenaline cheering for a fight. Superintendent swings Tess to the side, dropping her to the ground, and reaches for his taser.
â€œWAIT!â€ She belts from the floor. I don’t flinch, my eyes are fixated on “smirk-face.” I feel the rush of anger flowing through me again, and with everyone cheering, I feel I have to follow through, but if I do, my time will undoubtedly be extended.
Heâ€™s just waiting for me to mess up, just like the rest of the world out there.
â€œHey! Superintendent â€˜smirk-faceâ€™, I donâ€™t think youâ€™d be smiling much longer when I do this.â€
He sneers at me, knowing heâ€™s gotten under my skin.
â€œI knew youâ€™re under there somewhere, waiting to come out.â€
Tess approaches the superintendent. â€œDo you think this is a good idea, shouldnâ€™t you be de-escalating the situation, not inflaming it?â€
â€œNo, this is how the real-world works, they need to learn to control their temper, and if a little probing exposes their true colours, then they need to stay here!â€
â€œMaybe you’re right! I’d rather face an enemy like you than all the enemies, out there. I understand this system, whereas the system out there, it works against me. Maybe Iâ€™m destined to continue in and out of this place?â€ I begin to crack.
The room noise turns to complete silence.
â€œYou know screw you! My whole life, I had to fight my way out of everything, fight to eat, fight to get a roof under my head. Hell, I had to fight all these guys just, so I didnâ€™t get my backside beat first!â€
The inmates look at each other and concededly nod.
â€œYou think we want this life! Sure, in some way or another, we chose this life, but only after the system out there hung us out to dry, forgot about us, and we did anything to survive. Now? Now, weâ€™re stuck in survival mode every day; we donâ€™t sleep, we barely eat, and at the end of the day, we might fight for ranks in here, but weâ€™ll always be family against you!â€
The inmates look at each other, nod, clap and cheer. What I said resonated with them.
I raise the tray above my head.
Officer Tess stands up, her fist clutched. The inmates surround me, like a herd of elephants protecting their young. Her eyes quickly shift from me and turn towards Superintendent Martin. She then looks back at me and begins to approach.
â€œSTOP! Weâ€™re not all like this, pointing at the superintendent. Donâ€™t throw away your life, let this be your final chapter in here. You CAN change, but youâ€™ve got to want it first. You can say, â€œI want to stop,â€ but if you turn around and still CHOOSE to do it, then how much do you truly mean it? This is your crossroads, and I know itâ€™s not your first, and it wonâ€™t be your last, but every moment measures your next chapter. So where do you want your next chapter to be, another few thousand lines on the wall? Or do you want it to be, a new life, a do-over? This is your choice, choose wisely. I see the real you inside, this isnâ€™t you.â€
In that split-second, Mama Rose flashes into my mind. Iâ€™m having that moment again, to listen or not. This officer, sheâ€™s my messenger, just like Mama Rose was.
I drop the tray. The other officers jump on me.
A few days pass. Iâ€™m still waiting to hear what my punishment will be for the food court fiasco.
The cell door opens, Tess enters. My heart begins to race, my palms break into a sweat.
â€œWell, whatâ€™s my punishment?â€
â€œTheyâ€™re investigating superintendentsâ€™ behaviour, for abuse towards inmates.â€
â€œBut whatâ€™s going to happen to me? Extra month, an extra week? Please tell me an extra week.â€
â€œMan, how long? An extra year?â€
â€œNope!â€ I stare at her confused, and she begins to smile.
â€œYou are to be released immediately!â€ It sends shock waves through my body, and I fall to the bed, overcome by the news.
â€œWhat if Iâ€™m not ready?â€ I begin to shiver in fear, officer Tess grabs my hands, puts them together, and whispers to me.
â€œYouâ€™ve got this! Stay out of trouble, start fresh, use your support therapy.â€
â€œBut what if I canâ€™t find a job, and I get desperate. I donâ€™t have family, you know.â€
She laughs. â€œYou’ve just been looking in the wrong places, this time follow the signs, you wonâ€™t go astray.â€
She smiles one last time and guides me out. Moments later, Iâ€™m buzzed out the gates.
Soon, I reached my street, and as it always was, there was Mama Roseâ€™s sweet shop. I know I should just head for the next city, but I canâ€™t help myself. After all, itâ€™s been almost a decade since I set foot in that store.
I swing open the door, and just like years ago, my head is glued to the ground, and occasionally glance up at the cakes. Suddenly, an older Mama Rose comes out from the back.
She smiles at me as no time has passed. I look up at her and straight back to the ground.
She approaches me and hands meâ€¦ a slice of chocolate cake. Itâ€™s her special home-made one, that I love. She leans in and whispers â€˜welcome home.â€™
She turns around and walks back behind the counter when my eye catches a sign on the counter bench. â€œHelp Wanted.â€
I turn to exit; then glance at the store once more before I leave. I step outside, take a deep breath and walk straight back inside. Mama Rose watches on, I approach the sign and take it off the bench.
Mama Rose smiles and hands me an apron.