They would release the old man tomorrow.
The news sped through the prison, from the guards in the watchtowers, to the convicts peeling potatoes in the kitchen. Nobody could quite believe it, and yet, to everyone, it came with a thrill almost like joy.
The old man was called Grandpa by everyone. His actual name, by this time, no longer mattered. He had been Grandpa to a whole generation of prisoners, who had come and gone, and in some cases come again. In the files he was a number, but even that didn’t matter. The prison administration, when they talked about him, called him grandpa.
Grandpa sat in the warden’s office, huddled in a chair, looking frightened and forlorn. He had wrapped his arms around his middle, and rocked slowly to and fro, seeming to have shrunk into himself. Nobody, seeing him now, could have recognised the huge man who had ruled the prison like a father figure for so many years.
The warden looked at him with a mixture of pity and slight contempt. “Well, Grandpa,” he said. “Good to be leaving, is it?”
Grandpa glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t say anything.
“Never thought we’d ever get the order to let you go. How many years has it been, Grandpa? Forty? Forty-three?”
Grandpa’s lips moved just a little under his grizzled moustache. The lips shaped the word “forty”, but without any sound.
“There you are. You’ll be glad to be getting out, eh?” The warden beamed at the old man. “Just goes to show you.” What it went to show, he did not attempt to explain. “Nor did I expect that they’d pardon you, not after all these years. Must be someone who imagines you were innocent, huh?” The warden laughed. “Tomorrow, this time, you’ll be a free man, and can do whatever you want. Going to have a good meal first thing, are you?”
Grandpa’s lips moved again, but it was impossible to make out what he said.
“Well, then, you can go back to your cell for the night. Kind of to say goodbye, you understand?” The warden looked at his watch, at the computer screen, and back at Grandpa. He raised an eyebrow.
Grandpa didn’t say anything. Still huddled, he rose to his feet and stumbled out of the office.
Shaking his head and muttering something under his breath, the warden turned back to his files.
Grandpa wandered the corridors of the old prison, as though for the first time. This wing of the prison had been unoccupied for years, so he was alone in the corridors, passing the rows of abandoned cells. A couple of guards saw him, but though, strictly speaking, he shouldn’t have been out at that hour at all, let alone in this wing, neither said anything.
The corridors in this old wing were narrow and dark, the floors covered with a layer of dust. The only illumination came from a few old floodlights in the ceiling, patches of yellow in the gloom. The cells were tiny, too, and the doors had small windows, through which anxious eyes might have once peered, had footsteps echoed in the night as his were echoing now.
Once upon a time, many years ago, Grandpa had occupied a cell in one of these corridors. He walked along, looking for it, first casually and then with increased desperation, as though it were vitally important that he locate the precise cell. At one point he hesitated, looking around as if to check his bearings. But then he shook his head and moved on.
Finally, halfway down a corridor, he found the cell he’d been looking for. He tried the door, and let out a sigh of relief as it slowly pulled open under his hand. It was almost completely dark inside, and even smaller than he remembered. But that was all right.
Grandpa went in, and sat down on the old bunk. Many of these cells had been turned into storage rooms, full of sacks of cement and lumber, but this one was still empty. Grandpa leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes.
The darkness behind his eyelids flickered and melted, and the years fell away, as though they never were...
“Your appeal’s been rejected.” The lawyer didn’t even bother to look directly at him. “It’s life.”
“But I’m innocent,” he repeated for the hundredth time since his arrest. “I haven’t done anything.”
“Life,” the lawyer repeated. “And you’re lucky not to hang.” He made it sound as though it was due to his own personal effort that the death sentence hadn’t been imposed. Not that it mattered to him, since the court had appointed him, and it wasn’t even a glamorous case. Just another crime in the sleazy underbelly of the city.
Even now, all these decades later, Grandpa could feel the metallic rage and despair in his throat. It wasn’t as though the man hadn’t deserved killing – in fact, he’d deserved a lot more than that. But it wasn’t Grandpa who had killed him. And he’d been young then; life had stretched before him. And now?
Grandpa held out his hands in the darkness. He couldn’t see the wrinkles, but he knew they were there. He knew, too, the scars – and the broken nail which had never grown back properly. The nail had been crushed by a guard’s boot. It had been Grandpa’s third day in the prison.
If he wanted to think about it, he could remember everything about those first days, from the sound of the first gate as it clanged behind him, and the blinding shaft of pain as the guard’s boot had come down on his hand. It hadn’t been his fault any more than the killing had been his fault. All he’d done was defend himself when an older prisoner had shoved him to the wall and knocked him down. But the guard had hit him, trampled him down, not the other man.
He’d learned some lessons in those first days, lessons which he never forgot, and which he’d tried his best to pass on to the generations of prisoners who’s come after him. They were important lessons, in how to stay alive. Just one lesson he couldn’t give them, though.
“How do we get ourselves back together when we’re released?” more than one fresh-faced young inmate had asked, full of doubt and excitement at the prospect of release. Grandpa had looked at them all, drug pushers or pickpockets or thieves, and felt their excitement, vicariously, even though he knew most of them would be back behind bars – if not in this prison, than another. But he couldn’t tell them how to make their way outside, because that was something he’d never experienced.
Once there was a boy he’d liked a lot, a thin young man, barely eighteen, with delicate girlish features. Grandpa had looked out for the kid, because he was just the sort to be brutalised in the prison. The boy had slashed another boy with a knife over a girl, a crime in the heat of the moment, which had sent him inside for three years. By the time he’d left, he was no longer so thin, and – despite all of Grandpa’s efforts – no longer so innocent. Still, the old man had hoped he’d make a way in life for himself.
It was a forlorn hope. Two years later, Grandpa had seen him again – as an inmate of death row. He’d wondered then if things might have turned out different if he’d been able to give advice, some good solid advice on how to live after release. And his lips had curved in a tight smile. Who was he to give advice? He’d never get out.
Only now he was getting out, and there was nobody to help him.
A long time ago, there had been a girl. He could barely remember her face, or the sound of her voice – for that matter he could hardly recall when he’d last seen a woman – but she had been there for him, once. He sighed. It had been a long time ago, before the walls had shut him in, and she’d never contacted him again. He didn’t even know if she were still alive.
His gnarled hands clenched in the darkness. How he hated these walls, this cell, the bars that diced the light through the windows into attenuated cubes. How he hated them for what they’d done to him.
But he was getting out tomorrow. The realisation came back suddenly, like a punch in the guts. The years inside were over. This time, tomorrow, he would be a free man.
Suddenly, he was crying. Sitting there in the darkness, he felt the tears on his face, and could not wipe them away.
After a while, he slept.
“Goodbye...Grandpa.” The guard was new and shy, a very long way from the man who’d crushed Grandpa’s hand so long ago. “Have a good time on the outside.”
Grandpa smiled at him. The boy looked so eager to please, so absurdly sure he was doing something great and useful. Grandpa was glad he wouldn’t be around to see the boy’s idealism sour, and turn to bitterness, as it would given a year or so.
“I hear you’ve been exonerated,” the boy burbled. “It must feel so great knowing you’ve finally been vindicated, right?”
“Yes, thanks.” He waited for the guard to push the buttons which unlocked the final gate. “Well...best of luck.” Shouldn’t it be the guard who should be saying this? “You’ll need it,” he added.
The guard nodded, smiling, not understanding. “It’s a nice day to be out, isn’t it?” He was still smiling as Grandpa walked past him and out of the gate. Then he pressed the button which shut the doorway and cut the prison off from the outside world.
Grandpa stood for a moment, looking around. Suddenly, everything seemed too bright, too new, as if he’d just got a new pair of spectacles. He breathed deeply, and the air felt new, too, and sharp.
He wondered, then, where he was going, and what he would do.
And as the bus drew away from the prison, down towards the waiting city, he looked back one last time, and if he could have said anything at all, it might have been, Take me back, Take me back.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013