“You Alright, Mate?”
Introducing Chris. Chris is a new Class of 2021 Longford scholar who starts university this Autumn.
Here he explores the unwritten rules of prison, and post-prison, encounters….
When we used to pass each other in prison, whether inside or out, in browbeating heat and in rain that wriggles up your sleeves, you would say, “You alright, mate?” And I wondered if you really meant it. Were you just saying, “I acknowledge your existence,” which is, I suppose, still meritable in its own way, or did you really, genuinely care?
If I had said, “No, I’m not alright,” (which I often was not), would you have frozen mid-step, concerned and aghast at my change of answer? Would you have invited me over for tea and sat me down for a chat? Would you have listened to me worry about where I was going to live or fret about getting into University? What if I admitted I’d missed my brother’s wedding and that my partner was leaving me? Would you have told me it would be alright? Hugged me? Got me put me on an ACCT**?
If the answer to all of these is “No”, then I would rather you hadn’t acknowledged me at all.
Twice in one week when someone asked the question I said “Yes, I’m alright,” and they replied “Yeah, I’m good thanks,” which really underlined to me how meaningless the whole interaction was.
Some people didn’t say anything to me when we passed; not even a, “You alright, mate?” and I’m not sure if I resent them or admire their courage for breaking the mould. Other people didn’t used to say it but then they started to – like the guy I helped get a new mattress, or the man whose Comp 1** I wrote. Which led me to believe there might just have been some sentiment buried within it.
I often thought after our exchange about how many we might have left in us before one of us was released.
Neither of us knew we were saying goodbye by saying “You alright, mate?” but one day I doubt either of us remember, we did- and you were gone like yesterday’s bread.
I thought our performance well-rehearsed. But when I see you in Epping Forest we silently, mutually, telepathically decide to improvise. You are taller, your hair less wavy, and missing the roll-up that lived behind your ear but it is you. Our eyes lock and our hands come together as if that is how we always greet each other and this time I say it, “You alright, mate?”
I’m acutely aware of those around me. My brother and his wife, her sisters and brother, her sister’s boyfriend, his wife and their four kids – I’d never met most of them until today. I wonder if you and I will bravely attempt a longer conversation; if I can introduce you to them and say, “This is a man I have never told you about but here he is. The extent of our relationship is that we used to ask each other if we were alright up to three times a day without ever meaning it for more than a year.”
You say, “Where do I know you from?”
It strikes me as an odd question when we are already shaking hands.
“You were in Ford,” I reply, pointedly leaving out the ‘HMP’ in case your companion isn’t aware.
“Yes,” you say, “What’s your name?”
“Chris,” I say. “My name is Chris.”
We freeze there, like two dancers unsure of who is supposed to lead. My tongue caresses my bottom lip as I begin to form a word. I want to tell you about all that has changed: that I have a job, a girlfriend, somewhere to live, a scholarship to University; that it all has turned out better than I could have hoped – but I think how pompous I’ll sound and the words die with a breath on my lips.
“Who’s this?” My niece says, cutting through the tension in the way that only a child can.
“My…friend,” I say, hoping you won’t object.
“And these are your…?” you say.
“My family. This is my family.”
And that feels strange yet correct for me to say, like a stiff new shoe that fits just right.
I feel the moment slipping away and move to end it.
“Alright,” I say, “Good to see you. You take care.”
“Alright,” you say.
And we’re away: two boats shunted off the docks; two birds taking wing; two prisoners, free.
** Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork, or ACCT, is the official term for suicide watch
** Prison complaint form
Chris is studying a law degree with a Patrick Pakenham Award.