Sam's Special Suit
“Well Sam, you know the verdict,” stated Miss. Jones in her most officious voice. “Yes Ma-am,” murmured Sam. “Well then, Strip”. “But I…” Sam protested. “Sgt Brown and PC Steady are here to carry out the court’s orders if you will not comply willingly,” Miss. Jones interrupts. Sam looked to his left; there stood two policemen, both looking seven feet tall and menacingly, glaring at Sam. They leaned against the wall in small, sparsely furnished, magnolia-emulsioned room beneath the local magistrate’s court. “But…” blurts Sam. “Sgt, do your duty” commands Miss. Jones. Thin, hawk-faced, with vinegar for blood. “Umm, I think Sam may be just a little shy Ma-am”, said Sgt Brown. “Shy. Why?” Snarls Miss Jones incredulously. “You are a lady Ma-am”, explains the sergeant, with eyebrows raised. “OH, um, yes” stammers Miss. Jones unusually lost for words. “Right, I’ll, er, turn my back until Sam has finished .Sam, there’s a hospital smock on the table for you to put on it ties on the back”. Sam complies, slowly taking off his suit coat, trousers, shirt, vest, and socks. “Did his honour the judge mean everything?” asks Sam, knowing the answer. “Everything,” confirms Miss. Jones. “Put them in a tidy pile, ready for sentence to be carried out”. All done” says Sam, feeling like a right lemon in the smock which did not quite cover his derry-air, as the Sgt and PC noticed and were trying hard to keep straight faces. “Right pick up bundle, left turn quick march”, Miss. Jones orders showing her time in the WAAF was not wasted.” Open the door Sgt,” she commanded.
The Sgt opened the door they marched out, Miss Jones leading, Sam with his bundle, the Sgt and PC following up behind. The procession went down corridor, down steps, more corridors, more steps. The policemen tittering and making hushed comments, Sam knew what about, he could feel the draught, on a part of his anatomy that should never feel fresh air.
Sam tried to keep his dignity. Only twelve weeks ago, Sam was in India. Corporal Samuel Lewis, RAF Regiment, BFPO. On his way to Calcutta, to disembark on a transport ship, back home to Blighty for de-mobilisation. Driving in the Navy Blue RAF lorrySam and his squad passed a figure lying on the ground by the side of the dirt track. “Stop, Stop driver”, yells Sam. “I think the chap is injured. “Aw, corp”, mutters the driver, “we’re late, the ship.” Sam’s off the wagon, looking at the prone figure. It was an old native man, dressed in brightly coloured robes. He was unconscious and obviously in a bad way. “Help me get him on the wagon, we’ll take him to the hospital in Calcutta, it’s on our way”, orders Sam. Reluctantly the others get off to help, moaning about the heat and probably better to leave him. But Sam was having none of it. “I’ve got the stripes”, Sam reminds the squad.” I give the orders, OK. “OK”, came the grudging agreement. The lorry stopped outside the Calcutta hospital. Sam went in and made sure the Indian man was seen to. The man recovered enough to thank Sam and in broken English he said. “You can encounter many defeats, but you will not be defeated. What you will have, no-one can take away” Sam said thank-you, although he didn’t know why. Sam turned to go, he stopped in amazement. All down the hospital corridor were Indian people saluting him in their Indian custom and then saluting the old man on the bed. “What’s going on?” Sam asks a gesticulating orderly. “That is Rashma Khan, very holy man, great mystic, sees all.” Yeah right, thinks Sam, as he turns and walks out.
‘Stop”, orders Miss Jones. The procession complies; they are in the boiler room under the Magistrate’s Court. “Officers do you’re duty”, orders Miss Jones. Constable Steady opens the door of the furnace; Sergeant Brown takes Sam’s bundle of clothes and ceremoniously, throws each article of clothing into the roaring flames. Sam watches and recollects. It was six weeks after the event in India Sam was back in Blighty.. He was on demob parade, waiting to go into the wooden hut. You go in through the entrance a serviceman, out through the exit a civvy. Sam was apprehensive, the RAF had been his life for the last five years, good or bad it had looked after him, soon he would be all alone. Sam had no family, had no savings, no prospects, no home. Into the paymaster s office first. Sam gave his name rank and serial number. ‘Ah, corporal Lewis’, smiles Lieutenant Grant, not one of Sam’s fans and Sam knew it. Final payout, nineteen pounds, fifteen shillings and sixpence. Loss of kit, nineteen pounds. Balance due fifteen shillings and sixpence”. “What”, protests Sam. “My kit was washed overboard in the storm on the way home to demob, fifteen and six after five bleedin’years, bein’ ordered around by the likes of you”. The Sgt-major shouts. ‘Next”, Sam’s pushed on, fifteen and six in hand, plus a letter of thanks from Winston Churchill. “Right uniform on the bench, choose your civvies suit, shirt, underwear, socks, shoes, overcoat, hat, dress, move on. Next” Sam moves to the next room, there were racks and racks of reconditioned clothes, suits, shirts, everything the Sgt-major had mentioned. Sam perused took a shirt, tie, shoes, his size of course, hat, overcoat. What suit? Sam looked and looked, then he spotted a dark grey suit, it wasn’t the colour so much as the material it was made of. It looked and felt just like the material the old holy man was wearing back in India. Sam thinks what did the old man say to him. "You can encounter many defeats but you will not be defeated. What you have no-one can take away". “Well says Sam, “So much for the prophecy, fifteen shillings and sixpence, huh”.
Sam takes off his Blue uniform, folds it neatly on the bench, puts on his civvies including the grey suit. Walks out of the exit, out of the camp gates, out of the RAF, into the unknown. Sam walks, mind in a whirl. What to do? Where to go? He puts his right hand in his coat pocket, for no reason, just a reaction. In his pocket he feels a piece of paper folded up, Sam pulls it out, opens it up, a ten bob note. “Blinkin’ heck!” whoops Sam. “Somebody’s left a ten bob note in the suit”. He puts his left hand in the left coat pocket, ten bob, left trouser ten bob, right trouser ten bob, Inside jacket pocket lovely brown crispy ten bob note. Sam can’t believe his luck, whoever donated this suit must have left the money. Now Sam had a handful of ten bob notes. Unthinking he put them in his trouser pocket, again unthinkingly he put his hand in his coat pocket again, Sam felt another piece of paper, pulled it out, Ten Bob. Sam realised after pulling notes and notes from the same pockets something strange was happening. The pocket was empty when he took the note out, but somehow, a ten bob note appeared in every pocket of his jacket, when he put his hand back in.
Excitement got the better of him and he rushed into the nearest pub, shouting to everyone to drink up, he was rich. The customers did so alright, all night, thinking he was some kind of lunatic with money to burn. Sam kept buying, pulling ten bob notes out to pay for the drinks, until the landlord became suspicious and phoned the police. Sam was, “taken for questioning.” “Where did all the notes come from? How did he get them? Was he a forger, bank robber, did he have a criminal record”. Questions, questions, questions. Sam tried to tell the police the truth, about the amazing suit, but even to Sam it sounded weird. The police, frustrated, called a doctor, who quickly labeled Sam “delusional”. Sam was taken before the local magistrate, where the doctor explained. “Mr Samuel Lewis, recently returned from India, is in my opinion, suffering from delusions caused by some tropical ailment. I think the best course is to show Mr. Lewis his clothes do not produce money, by burning the garments in front of him, which in my medical opinion, will shock him into reality.” “So be it, “ says the judge. “ Miss Jones see to it”.
In the boiler room Sam watched. The clothes caught fire immediately and were soon gone. “Mr Lewis”, Miss Jones sneers. ”The Salvation Army supplied these for you.” She hands Sam a replacement suit, shirt etc. “Please put them on, leave and do not come back”. Sam looks at his duds, not a patch on his old ones he thought as he dressed. As the policemen escorted Sam off the premises walking through the dark corridor, Sam thought he could hear a voice saying. "You can encounter many defeats, but you will not be defeated. What you will have no-one can take away". Sam put his hand in his hand–me-down suit pocket, Sam feels a piece of paper folded up. Sam smiles and whispers “Thank you Rashma Khan, this time I’ll use the gift wisely”.
As I lay on my prison bed, a train rumbled out in the darkness. The railway line was half a mile away, but in the stillness of the night it seemed just to be on the other side of the cell wall. “The 12.10’s late!” The voice of Billy Wilkinson—Billy the dip, he was talking more to himself than to me. I hear him drawing on his roll-up cigarette, I smell the tobacco and I sense his apprehension.
“Only two more nights Billy”.“You’ll be out free, all the nightspots in Brum, all the chicks, beer, proper fags” “The night trains are always late”, was the response. “Billy, just think, you’ll be seeing family and friends again. Bin’ five years inside ‘asnt it?” “’Aint got no family, ‘aint got no friends on the outside, ‘aint got no home, ‘aint got no prospects. I’m a born criminal, why do ya’ think they call me Billy the dip, I’m a pickpocket, a petty thief. In and out of clink, life’s a revolving door for me. How long d’ya think I’ll be on the outside for, ‘aint worth the bloody potch”. “C’mon Billy, look at me I got a twelve months to go, long bit of porridge left for me”. “I’d swop yer Ed, you bin’ a good butty to me, if I could I’d swop yer”.
Another train races past, I look out of the barred widow high up in the cell wall, I see the velvet sky, the twinkling stars and I think of life on the outside. I must sleep now, I rise early to start work in the screws canteen, waiting and cooking breakfasts for the people who lock me up. Still, it keeps me in snout and prepares me for civvy life. No more chokey for me, I’m going straight as an ‘arrer when I get out. “Down train’s late as well”, Billy says. I hear no more. Dawns the day, I get an early shout, the screws are waiting for their breakfast. Billy’s awake, I don’t think he’s slept. ‘What ya’ goin’ to do today Billy? I try conversation, just to ease the silence. To my surprise Billy responds. “Gonna see the reverend, then ask to see the governor”. “Yeah”, I’m surprised. Usually last day you just sit and relax, ignore all officialdom, ‘cause soon they can’t touch you, sort of in limbo last day, the screws know it and leave you to your own devices. Anyway you normally see the governor on the morning before you exit the hallowed halls of this venerable institution. “I don’t wanna’ leave Ed,” Billy blurts out suddenly. “I’m gonna ask if there’s any way I can stay on inside, you know like an odd job man or summat”. I’m shocked, but I try not to show it “Really Bill, d’ya think they’ll do that?” “Well I’m bloody well going to ask, I’m comfortable here, what’s the point of me being out. I’ve spent 27 tears in chokey, I’m 44 years old now, I know nothing else only being in stir. If I can just stay, not as a con but as a useful part of the staff”. I perform my ablutions, wash shave, slop out. Billy’s just lying there, smokin’. The only time he says something, is when a train rumbles past in the distance. He’s whispering, “Freedom”, Billy says. “Freedom”. I leave to go to my work, I say to Billy. “Good luck with, the reverend and governor, but watch that chief screw Edwards, he’s an out an’ out b*****d, an’ you’ll have to get permission off him before you can speak to the rev. or the governor”. Billy grunted, I left.
The rest of Billy’s day I pieced together, from cons and screws and bits and pieces from Billy. Anyways, Billy the dip went to see Edwards, Edwards ironballs as he was known, a big military man, twenty five years in the Infantry, sar’nt major of course, fifteen years in the Prison Service. A cynical, cold, piece of work, to him every con is a turd, the longer you’re in for the bigger the turd an’ he let you know it. “Whaddya want Wilkinson?” snarls ironballs “Permission to see the Reverend White and Governor Bartram, please Mr. Edwards.” “Why” “Personal reasons sir!” “You’ve always been a time waster Wilkinson. You’re whole life is a complete waste of time. You may be out of here tomorrow, but you’ll soon be back, pricks like you, always are. Follow me”. Edwards leads the way first to the prison chapel, where the chaplain, Rev.Archibald White, was organizing a squad of cons on cleaning duty. Edwards explains, Wilkinson wants a word. “Yes young man”, the rev says smiling, but keeping an eye on his cleaning team. “Sir “, Billy starts. I’d like you to recommend me for a job in the jail. I’m due out tomorrow I just can’t face the outside. I was thinkin’ if you and the governor recommended me, I could do all the odd jobs, like cleaning and helping in the chapel. You can’t trust this lot sir, but you can trust me”. “Ah Billy, I understand your anxieties but let me reassure you, the world outside is a big beautiful place. All anyone has to do is follow the rules of society and you will prosper”. “But Mr. White, every time I’m let out I can’t cope, I’m back inside before I take me ‘at off. If I could just sorta’ stay inside helping out and sorta’ just ease myself back out into civvy street”. “Can’t be done Billy, you are the master of your own destiny. Resist all temptations that lead back to prison, fight the good fight. Now if you’ll excuse me I think someone’s after the silver, well silver plate that is, best of luck Billy”.
Edwards walks up to Billy smirking, he’d been listening alright, could hardly keep a straight face. But he knew Billy was seeing the governor next. Governor Bartram was a humanitarian, Edwards felt contempt for his namby-pamby ways, but he dare not say too much, prisoners had rights and Mr. Bartram made sure they were respected. Edwards and Billy walked the corridors to the governor’s office, there Edwards went in. Billy waited in the outer room with Mrs. Hardiman, the vinegar faced secretary, she never looked at him once, Billy could have been a piece of rubbish standing there, ten minutes later Billy is ushered in. “William”, Governor Bartram says in his very patronising way, nobody ever calls Billy William, Billy takes a second to realize Bartram was talking to him. “William the reverend has informed me about your apprehensions”. Apprehensions, what are they? Mountains in Tibet, Billy thinks. “Let me assure you William, all your needs will be seen to. You are going first of all to a half-way house in Birmingham, where a placement officer, will see you get suitable employment, blah, blah, blah”. Yes, yes Billy thinks, been there, done that, had the injection. This bloody do-gooder’s never been within ten miles of a half-way house. Every bugger on the make, they’d pinch your y-fronts while your wearing them, well they would, were all bloody crooks living five to a bloody room. Placement officer my, arse they don’t give a toss they don’t. An’ if you got one who did, who’s gonna’ employ a bloody thief. There should be a notice on the governors’ office wall— Caution bullshit being delivered. What’s that? The 10 o clock down train’s early, hope it’s on time tomorrow—Freedom— Billy had switched off. “Blah, blah, blah, and so William I’m sure you will become a useful addition to society. So go out with head held high, right, Mr.Edwards” Edwards screams. “Prisoner about turn, move forward, open door, march”.
William, er, I mean Billy found himself outside in the corridor, he hadn’t spoken a word. Edwards puts his big red ugly face into Billy’s and says quietly. “Turds like you should be tied up in a mailbag and chukked in the river. You thieves only use up tax payers’ money that could be spent on some worthy cause. You’ll be back alright Wilkinson and I’ll be waiting with your pisspot all ready for you”.
Billy hears another train, he doesn’t hear Edwards. But if he had Billy would probably agree with what he said, Billy had no illusions about what he faced on the outside. Quite the contrary, Billy knew exactly what to expect. Freedom Billy thinks—Freedom. That evening Billy said very little, I just got on with my business, not that there’s a lot to do in the chokey of an evening. But I didn’t want to be around Billy, he was being released and wanted to stay inside, I had another year to do and wanted to be on the outside, just pissed me off a bit. Anyway all Billy done was listen for trains, muttering freedom.
The evening went, I managed to get to sleep quickly, good job, tomorrow a new cell mate and cross another day off the calendar. I said my goodbyes to Billy, he said his goodbyes to me, it had been two years banged up together. I never really got to know Billy, so I felt nothing now he was going. I had to go get the screw’s breakfasts, so I left him getting preparing for his formal farewell with the governor and that was that.
It was 10.15 am, the governor, Rev.White and Edwards entered the prison warders’ canteen. They always had a snack at this time every morning, sitting together discussing whatever. The television on the wall tuned in to BBC news 24. As I prepared their beverages, I heard a report on the T.V. All heads in the room turned to face the telly. The reporter said. “The deceased thought to have just been released that morning from Winson Green prison Birmingham, apparently jumped in front of the 10 0 clock express to London, an eye witness gave us this report”. A railway repair man looking white and still shocked, a microphone shoved in his face blurted out. “We wuz working on the track, we received the warning the down London express was due. We all went to the side of the track, as the train came into sight. The feller just appeared from behind the Gorse bush. He looked at us, smiled, then just walked into the track, held his arms out and shouted, Freedom, we could hear him, clear as a bell, freedom he shouted. We tried to warn him but he just smiled back at us, then the train hit him, bang, he disintegrated in front of our eyes, never seen anything like it, ‘orrible, ‘orrible”.
We all watched the report mouths open, we all knew it was Billy. The Reverend White was as pale as his name, Governor Bartram looked shocked and visibly shaken, Edwards just had a slight grin on his face, not as anyone other than me would have noticed, but it was there. They all got up in silence and walked out of the canteen. How I would have loved to have been inside their heads at this moment. As for Billy, well what can you say, his freedom is what he thought freedom was. It wasn’t to be found outside jail, nor in jail. Perhaps it was in his beloved trains, anyway no more porridge for Billy, I feel happy, I’m not quite sure why— or maybe I do!