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The theme this time was "Porridge". We were told to interpret that any way we chose. The word is a slang term for a prison sentence. So perhaps we might do something with loss of freedom, or maybe a restraint of some kind. I decided to be a bit perverse (now there's a surprise). I chose to interpret the word completely literally and so I wrote a prison story with added breakfast...

The anecdote about Fremantle Prison in Western Australia, which occurs near the end of the story, is completely true. If you visit the prison, you'll see what I saw and hear what I heard. Perhaps that will add another dimension to this story.


Living Forever

"There’s something a bit odd about Derek Wilkinson, the man in Cell 42," said Martin who had just arrived to start working his day shift at the prison. He pulled the peak of his uniform cap down low over his eyes so that he was forced to hold his head back and keep his spine ramrod straight if he wanted to be able to see anything. He imagined that this rigid posture made him look more authoritative. Graham, who was much more relaxed about these things, and who didn’t like Martin very much anyway, thought it made him look like an idiot.

"Why do you say that?" asked Graham, yawning. He’d been working nights and he was looking forward to going home, now that his shift was over.

"He sleeps all day," said Martin.  "It’s not natural. Other prisoners go out in the exercise yard. They mix with each other. They socialise. He ignores everyone and just snores the day away. Night time is for sleeping, not day time. It’s very odd behaviour, I tell you."

Graham hung his uniform in his locker and shut the door. "I sleep all day," he pointed out.

"Yes," said Martin. "But you’ve been working all night. You’ve got an excuse. He’s just been locked alone in his cell during your shift, and that’s when he should be sleeping."

Graham shrugged. "Perhaps the man has something to do during the night," he said. "Something that keeps him busy enough so that he’s tired in the morning."

"That’s ridiculous," sneered Martin. "What could he possibly occupy himself with all night long in a tiny prison cell?"

"Maybe he’s digging a tunnel," suggested Graham thoughtfully.

Martin looked startled at the idea of a prisoner excavating an escape tunnel. "We search all the cells nearly every day," he said. "There’s never been even the slightest indication of anything like that. Anyway, where would he get the heavy tools that he’d need to force a way through all that reinforced concrete?"

"There’s the plastic spoon he gets with his breakfast porridge," said Graham. "You can do quite a lot with a plastic spoon."

"Don’t be stupid," sneered Martin who had no trace whatsoever of a sense of humour and who therefore  never realised when Graham was pulling his leg.

Graham shrugged again. Water off a duck’s back. "I’m going home," he said. "Enjoy your day."

* * * *

That evening, after a good day’s sleep, Graham went back to the prison for his night shift duty. Usually he spent most of it in the observation centre, drinking tea and listening to music on his smartphone. After all, the prisoners were securely locked up in their cells and presumably they were all asleep. What mischief could they possibly get up to? Closed circuit TV cameras projected random images of the prison on screens in the centre, but at this time of night all that they showed were vistas of empty corridors and empty common rooms. The cells had emergency buttons in them, and if a crisis occurred the prisoners could attract his attention by pressing the button. But in all the years he’d been doing the job, that had only happened to him once when a prisoner had accidentally dropped his favourite coffee mug. Graham had found him in tears over its shattered remains.

Night shift at the prison was a good job to have, thought Graham. There really wasn’t much for him to do until about an hour before the shift ended. That was when he had to supervise the delivery of breakfast to the prisoners. But that just involved watching the trusties push bowls of porridge through the delivery slots into each cell. Easy.

However Martin’s comments had worried him a little and so tonight he decided that he would take an occasional wander down to Cell 42 to see if Derek Wilkinson really was up to something…

Consequently the wee small hours of the morning found Graham in ‘C’ wing, heading down the corridor to Cell 42. He flipped open the peep-hole and was rather surprised to see a light shining in the cell. Lights in the cells were all controlled from the observation centre and at this time of night they were supposed to be turned off. But somehow Derek had found a way to bypass the control circuits, and now he had light where no light was supposed to be.

Graham decided to open the cell and investigate further – Derek had no reputation for violence. By all accounts he was a gentle soul, so Graham was quite confident that it would be safe for him to open the cell, confront Derek, and make him explain whatever it was that he was doing.

Derek looked up as the cell door swung open. "Oh," he said, sounding surprised at the interruption. "Damn!"

Graham looked around the cell. Derek was busy drawing something on one of the walls. Not the usual crudely sexual graffiti that most prisoners would have drawn, given the opportunity. This picture was an incredibly detailed caricature of Martin, glaring fiercely at the world from beneath the peak of his uniform cap. The drawing was, at one and the same time, very recognisable, subtly distorted and cruelly funny. It captured Martin’s personality perfectly and mocked him unmercifully. Graham stared at it and heard  himself say something amazingly stupid. "Drawing murals is against prison regulations," he said.

"Tell me something I don’t know," said Derek.

"It’s a clever picture," said Graham. "But why have you drawn Martin?"

"Because the bastard kept waking me up at hourly intervals yesterday, demanding to know why I was sleeping. It was very annoying, so I drew a caricature of him to relieve my feelings."

"He’ll get his revenge on you when he sees it," said Graham. "He’s a very vindictive man."

"He’ll never see it," said Derek. "It will be breakfast time when I finish the picture, and I’ll smear my porridge over it to conceal it from view."

"Porridge?"

"The world’s only grey food," said Derek. "It matches the shade of the paint on the walls perfectly. I’ve been drawing pictures on my cell walls every night for months and then hiding them with porridge in the morning. The technique was invented by a convict at Fremantle Prison in Western Australia. I learned about it when I visited the prison with a tour group. His pictures stayed hidden for nearly a hundred years. They weren’t found until the prison was refurbished and opened up as a tourist attraction. These days he and his drawings are quite famous. There’s even a Wikipedia page about him. Do you think my pictures will remain hidden for a hundred years?"

"Probably longer," said Graham. "They’ve made huge technical advances in porridge since the old days."

"Immortality," said Derek. "That’s what it’s all about really. I want people to remember me when the porridge finally comes off."

"When they find Martin’s picture he’ll be immortal as well," said Graham thoughtfully. "Why does someone like him deserve to be remembered by future generations? What about you and me?"

"My picture is on that wall over there," said Derek. He gestured to the featureless grey wall above his bed. "But I’ll draw you on this wall tomorrow if you promise not to report me. I’ll make you really handsome and attractive. Honest!"

Graham locked Derek back in his cell and returned to the operation centre. Immortality through porridge, he thought. What a shame he’d have to share the future with Martin. But you can’t always have everything you want.


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