Famous Former Pupils

  Sir Alexander Fleming

  Lord Boyd Orr

William McIlvanney - The Prisoner

This short story is from William McIlvanney's book, "Walking Wounded". It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.

The prisoner

Al right, Rafferty,' the governor said. `Good luck. And let's hope we won't be seeing you again.' The next one he certainly would be seeing again.

McQueen: over the past twenty years more time in prison than out of it. Recidivist. Always the same crime: burglary without violence but also burglary without the slightest indication of' ever stopping. Show McQueen a big house and he wanted to screw it. The Don Juan of burglary. His only saving grace as a burglar was his inefficiency. But at least inside he had tended to behave. And now this.

The governor closed the file. He prepared himself for McQueen's presence, the rumpled hair, the heavy shoulders, the puzzlingly introverted eyes. The feeling that you might never get through to him. Conversations with a totem pole.

Without looking up, the governor knew that the assistant governor was watching him. He also knew, irritatedly, the way he was watching him: that look of those who wait for someone else to see the light. The governor hated that look, smugness like bell metal. The assistant governor was like a Jehovah's Witness of the hard line, always ready to canvass for his cause, always patient before the benightedness of others, always convinced that phoney liberals would eventually see the error of their ways.

The governor looked up and saw the expression that was pointed towards him like a Bible tract. Let us be righteous and burn the other bastards in hellfire.

`Okay,' the governor said. `Let's have him in.'

`This is a hard one, chief.'

The governor wondered where the assistant governor got his dialogue.

`Uh-huh,' he said. `Let's have him in.'

`You want me in with you on this one?'

`No, Frank.'

`After what he's done?'

`I know McQueen.'

'We all thought we knew McQueen.'

`Frank. If I shout for help, you come in with the machine -gun.'

Levity was the best defence against the assistant governor. Humour was a foreign language to him. If you wanted him to laugh, you had to tell him it was a joke. He had his customary reaction of mild affront and went out and officiously ushered in McQueen, giving the governor a last significant look: help is at hand.

McQueen came in pleasantly and stood in front of the governor's desk. The governor decided not to tell him to sit down. This was a stand-up problem. McQueen returned the governor's look and almost smiled and gazed out of the window. The governor tried not to like that crumpled face that looked as if it might have come out of the womb asking for directions and still not received an answer.

` McQueen.'


The governor felt that McQueen's respect was subtly disrespectful. He invariably addressed the governor as `Sir' but he invariably used the inflection of his West of Scotland dialect, as if reminding him that they didn't quite speak the same language. `Sur' was the fifth-column in the standard English McQueen affected when speaking to the governor.

`You know what this is about.'

Yes, sur.' `Why?'

McQueen shrugged.


`McQueen. You were obviously unhappy throughout the Christmas meal. Officer Roberts warned you three times. Christmas is a bad time for the men. The slightest bit of trouble could cause a riot. And what did you do? At the end of the meal you smashed your plate on the floor. You jumped on to the table and danced through all the other empty plates. You broke three chairs. And it took four warders to get you out of there. Is that a fair report? '

`Two chairs, sur. One of them wouldny brek.'

The governor decided to let the pedantry pass.

'Just tell me why, McQueen.'

He looked off into the distance that lay outside the window and the governor was aware again of the opaque quality of McQueen's eyes. They were the eyes the governor had to admit it of a visionary. A private, bizarre, non-conformist visionary. You could never he sure what was going on in McQueen's head but you could always be sure it was something. If only he would keep it in there, whatever it was, the governor thought. McQueen looked back at the governor and the governor briefly felt their roles reversed. He knew that McQueen was going to tell him, but with something that felt like condescension. It was as if McQueen had set the governor a simple problem and he was saddened that the governor couldn't solve it. He would tell him but in the manner of a disappointed teacher reluctantly admitting that his pupil hadn't made much progress.

'The turkey, sur,' he said.

`The turkey?'

`The turkey, sur.'

'What was wrong with the turkey?'

`Did you see the turkey, sur?'

`I saw the turkey. McQueen. I ate the turkey. McQueen.

It may interest you to know that during any working day I eat the same food as the inmates. I don't have lunches sent up from the Ritz. I care about this establishment. I think every inmate in here deserves to be punished. But punished in specific ways. And spoiling the food isn't one of them. I check the kitchen every single day. That was a very special Christmas meal we made. The turkey was of high quality. I tasted it!'

It wasn't the taste.'

`I beg your pardon?'

`Sur. It wasn't the taste. Sur.'

`No, no. That's not what I mean. You thought the turkey tasted all right?'

`I've tasted better, sur. But it was all right.'

The governor looked down at the impeccable order of his desk. There was the matching set of marled fountain-pen and propelling pencil which his wife had given him years ago on his first senior appointment. There was the photograph of Catriona and Kim and Jason, looking laundered. There were the books of reference, sandbags between him and procedural error. There was the correspondence waiting to be signed, not an edge of a sheet out of place. The only thing that hinted at the invading chaos of a life like McQueen's was the big desk blotter. It was covered in hieroglyphics, countless comments and signatures that had come out backwards, overlaying one another and creating a complex palimpsest as difficult to decipher as an ancient manuscript. He would have to renew it soon.

Looking at the blotter, he felt the familiar feeling that came from talking to McQueen. He was trying to define the feeling. About three years ago, Catriona and he had gone to a play. It was the last time they had been to the theatre. They had sat through an hour-and-three-quarters during which people did things that had no connection with any- thing they had done before and made remarks to one another that seemed to come out of thin air. One character spoke for ten minutes at one point without interruption and then the play went on as if she had n ' t opened her mouth. As far as Catriona and he were concerned, she might as well not have. They stayed for the whole performance out of a kind of baffled guilt, exchanging looks. Were they the only ones who had n ' t read the guide-book? At the interval, an ageing man who had two attractive girls with him had said, 'Sur-realist, ' into a gin and tonic. Perhaps McQueen was a surrealist.

`So the turkey tasted all right, ' the governor said. `So what was the problem? The presentation? Did the waiter serve you from the wrong side? '

Something resembling relaxed enjoyment surfaced in McQueen ' s eyes and sank again, like a fish in a polluted pool. McQueen had liked the remark. The governor had a moving glimpse of what it might have been like. to talk to McQueen outside the walls.


`You ate it, sur? '

`I ' ve told you that. '

Ye didn ' t notice anything, sur? '

`I noticed it tasted very good. And so did the roast potatoes. And the other vegetable. What was it again? And the stuffing. And the cranberry sauce. We even gave you cranberry sauce! '

`And that ' s all, sur?'

`What more did you want? '

`Naw, sur. I meant tha t ' s all you noticed? The taste, like . ' `What else is there, man? '

McQueen looked at the governor as if he had only just realised what a wag he was. He shook his head: I may look simple but you don ' t catch me out as easily as that.

`McQueen! For heaven ' s sake! If you don ' t tell me now what was wrong with the turkey ..

McQueen pursed his lips. His expression suggested he was being asked to tell a watch the time.

It was round, ' he said.

The governor stared at him. He was back watching that incomprehensible play.

It was round? ' he asked with the involuntary tone of' someone being admitted to a deep secret.

'The turkey was round, sur, ' McQueen confirmed. The governor recovered quickly.

`Of course, the turkey was round. I saw the bloody thing. The turkey was bloody round. ' The governor paused. He had used a swear-word. The governor never swore in front of the men. He looked sternly at McQueen as though trying to convince McQueen that he was the one who had sworn. `So what? '

` Turkeys aren ' t round, sur.'

`I know turkeys aren ' t round, McQueen. You don ' t have to tell me that. That was part of a turkey. What you ate was part of a turkey. '

'Which part was that, sur?'

'What do you mean?'

` What part of a turkey's round?'

`There ' s no part of a turkey that ' s round. ' The governor hesitated. `Or if there is, I wouldn't know. That ' s not the point. You ate turkey. You had turkey for your Christmas dinner. I ' m telling you that. You ate turkey, McQueen. '

McQueen looked at the floor stubbornly, unconvinced. A small dawn rose in the governor's eyes. McQueen had been in for six years this time. Before that, he had been outside only for brief spells over a period of twelve years. Other inmates referred to McQueen ' s time outside as taking his holidays. McQueen was simply out of touch with the ways of the world.

`McQueen,' the governor said. `It was turkey roll . ' 'What, sur?'

'What you ate. It was turkey roll. '

McQueen considered the possibility.

`ft's a process, McQueen. A modern process. You take a lot of turkeys and make them into a turkey roll. With machinery. You refine the turkeys.'

`How do ye do that, sur?'

The governor looked away.

`You. Pass them through machinery. '

` What? Everything, sur? '

` How would I know, McQueen? I suppose you take the feathers off. , Just accept the fact, man. Everybody else does. It was turkey roll. '

`It wasn ' t turkey, sur. '

`McQueen. Turkey roll is turkey. Everybody accepts that. It's what a lot of people eat. '

`'Then they ' re not satin ' turkey, sur. Turkey roll, as ye call it, isn't turkey. It may be like turkey. But i t ' s not turkey . ' It is turkey! What else would it be? '

McQueen was taking the question seriously.

`See when they refine it, sur? What is the exact process ? '

The governor was watching McQueen, realising some-thing. But McQueen was too caught up in pursuit of his own ideas to notice. The governor observed him from a distance, like a business-manager full of grave responsi­ bilities looking out of his office window to see a grown-up layabout, who should know better, chasing after butterflies in the park.

` See what I mean, sur? What happens when they turn a turkey into turkey roll? What is it they do, sur? Do you know? Do I know? Do any of the ordinary people know? They take out the bones. Right? They must take out the bones, sur. But nowadays, who knows? Maybe they powder them, sur. And mix it in with the whole Inish-mash. But what exactly do they do? What is the machinery like, sur? And. ' McQueen paused with the look of a man who has found the incontrovertible point, the argument with which you must agree. `What else do they put in? It ' s guaranteed they put in something, sur. If turkey roll's not a substitute for turkey, why not just have the turkey? Eh?' McQueen was smiling in triumph. ` It ' s cheaper. And what are they doing to make it cheaper? They could put any kind of crap in there, sur, and we wouldn ' t know. Preservatives. Bits of dead clogs for all we know. We ' re being had, sur. Every-body's being had. Turkey roll isn ' t turkey. Sur. '

The governor was looking at McQueen. What he had realised was that McQueen was enjoying this. All the men did that. Let out of their routine for any purpose, they contrived to make an event of it. It was part of the emotional economy of prison, like a man going to be hanged who decides he ' ll try to enjoy the walk to the gallows. The governor understood that.

But McQueen ' s was an extreme case. He had just been brought up from solitary on a very grave breach ofdiscipline. It could be incitement to riot. And he had contrived to turn his appearance before the governor into a metaphysical discussion on what constitutes a turkey. Was he serious?

The governor studied McQueen, who let himself be studied without apparent discomfort. The intensity of McQueen ' s commitment to the great turkey question seemed unreal but his reaction to the Christmas dinner had been real enough. You had to wonder if round turkeys were just an excuse but when you looked at McQueen they sure enough felt like a reason.

Prison magnified trivia. Everything came at you as if it was under a microscope. If a man you did n ' t like raised his forefinger, it looked like an obelisk. The governor had known a man who was killed for not paying the tobacco he owed. The tobacco, carefully used, would have made five cigar­ ettes. The governor had a blessedly brief vision of the terrible complexities with which he was dealing. Habit came to his rescue.

'McQueen, ' the governor said. 'That ' s it? Because the turkey was round? '

'It wasn ' t turkey, sur. '

'It was turkey roll. '

'We were promised turkey. '

`Everybody else seemed satisfied.'

`That ' s up to them. '

The governor contemplated the strange wildness of McQueen ' s behaviour and gave it up.

` Yo u ' re back to solitary, McQueen , ' he said. `Till I decide. I sec no justification for your behaviour. I don ' t even see that you're sorry for it. Are you? I mean, was that the only way you could express yourself? '

McQueen shrugged.

`You said it yerself, sur. Ye can ' t complain to the waiter, can ye? '

The governor wondered how he was supposed to have said it himself. Then he remembered having mentioned the idea of a waiter serving from the wrong side. There it was again, tangential attempts to meet. One of us, the governor thought, is wrong. Or perhaps we both are. He hadn ' t time to pursue the thought.

`McQueen. I'm disappointed in you. You know the score here. Every man in here is a long-termer from another place. This is where you get a chance to prepare for outside. You know this is an easy ticket. W e ' re trying to make a transition here. From hard jails to the real world. '

'That ' s the real world, sur? Broken promises? Synthetic turkey? '

`The interview ' s over, McQueen. Don ' t you understand that? And you didn ' t get the job. I've tried to give you a chance. We'll do it my way now. And you ' ll just listen. In the meantime you ' re back yourself. I don ' t want any rotten apples in my barrel. You ' re a mug. You ' ve maybe just worked your ticket to a real jail. I'll let you know. In the meantime, stew in your juice. I hope you enjoy it. Thing is, you ' re not even a violent man. Then you do this. Hoof it. '

As McQueen turned, one thing was still niggling at the governor ' s mind.

`McQueen! '

McQueen stopped, turned round.

` You ate the turkey. '

` Sorry, sur? '

` You ate the turkey. And then you ate the pudding. Was the pudding all right, by the way? Was that to your taste ? ' `It wasn ' t really, sur. '

`Oh. What was wrong with that? '

`Ah do n ' t like a cold thing and a warm thing put together . ' ` You mean the ice-cream and the hot apple tart? ' ` That ' s right, sur. '

`I hope you like the menu better where yo u ' re going . ' McQueen was turning away again.

` But you miss the point, ' the governor said.

McQueen turned back, practised in patience.

` You ate the turkey, ' the governor said. ` You ate the pudding. You ate everything. And then you made your protest. Why? '

McQueen gave him that habitual look that suggested the world was out to con him.

`Ah was hungry, sur, ' he said.

The governor was left staring into the remark. It opened like a window on to a place he had never been. He saw McQueen sitting eating his meal in the big hall. Around him were faces that would n ' t have been out of place on Notre Dame Cathedral. McQueen was grumbling but nobody else was giving him any support. McQueen was hungry, so he ate everything and then exploded. The precision was where the governor had never been, the precision of passion, the risk of choosing the moment when you try to express utterly what you feel. McQueen, the governor understood with a dismay that would quickly bury the understanding in disbelief like dead leaves, was capable of something of which the governor was not. McQueen was capable of freedom.

The assistant governor opened the door and looked in. ` Well? ' he said.

W e ' ll see. He goes back down today. Then I ' ll decide . ' ` It ' s a bad one. We don ' t need that stuff here. '

`I know that. We ' ll see. '

The assistant governor contrived to make a nod look negative and went out.

The governor started to sign his mail. When he was finished, he would inspect the kitchens. Then he would have lunch with the assistant governor and Mrs Caldwell, the teacher. They would discuss which inmates might be capable of sitting an external examination, the advisability of an evening creative writing class under a visiting teacher and the case of' Branson, who believed he was a genius not being published simply because he was in prison. The afternoon was exactly scheduled. He would leave a little early this evening because he was speaking to the Rotary Club in the nearest town, where he lived. Catriona and the children would be asleep by the time he got back. It was an early rise tomorrow. It was his day off and it was their day for visiting his parents. The drive was long and boring and it only gave them three hours at his parents ' house. But maybe that was just as well. His mother was a woman who had turned into a compendium of elusive ailments which she recited as if they were conversation. His father would sit apparently stunned into silent awe at the agonies she went through. They would all get back just in time for bed. As he worked, the governor was vaguely aware of an image prowling the perimeter of his interlocking thoughts. The image was the rumpled figure of McQueen.

McQueen sat very still in his cell. With an almost mystical intensity, he was thinking himself beyond the enmeshing smell of urine mixed with disinfectant that had always for him meant prison. He had a method for doing this. He recreated in his mind big houses he had seen. This one was a big detached white house with a semi-circular balcony on the first floor. It faced the sea-front of an Ayrshire coastal town. Sometimes in McQueen ' s head they were hard to get into. This one had been easy. He put shaving foam on the burglar alarm and forced the kitchen window.

McQueen landed on his stockinged feet on the kitchen floor. His shoes were on the draining board. He tied their specially long laces together and hung them round his neck. He listened. His eyes became accustomed to the darkness. Something brushed against his leg and he almost called out. It was a cat. McQueen bent down and stroked it gently. He straightened and looked slowly round the kitchen. The kitchen was well appointed, rich in the shining surfaces of affluence. It glowed dimly like the entrance to Ali Baba's cave.

McQueen moved without sound towards the hall. He was wondering what he would find.