Inside the walls of Jericho
Love is a prison…
The urge to fling open the iron door almost made me vomit. Could I get away with this? Could we? Jericho was so dim: the superintended wouldn’t even have to beat the facts out of him. The words would spill from his mouth like old rice. Even in school, when we called him “J” he never could tell lies: “J, how big yuh Mudda’s ta-tats is?” we would ask, joking. And he would tell us, confused as to why us boys were wailing with laughter, flailing arms and spinning in the playground in an exaggerated show of helicoptered hilarity, him having revealed he checked her bra size, once. What would become of Jericho…if I did this?
The problem had started on my hands. They looked like corbeau feet, eczema flaring up between my thumb and forefingers, tuning the walnut-coloured skin of my thumb the dead black of sickness.
Jericho was gentle, chilled like dark chocolate. He had a thick boxer’s frame and was 6ft now. Teeth so white they looked brilliant in his mouth. A robust nose that made him handsome. He would watch me changing my clothes through the rectangle of glass in the cell door and grin. I know he didn’t get my fretting. “Is a small patch, Boy,” he would say.
I blamed it on the showers: all of us on this side of the compound wall having to walk over the same concrete drain: like a church procession, only naked – me tall and nerdy, next to short, fat, fatter, aged 13 to 24, bodies no longer private. Life orderly. Remanded or already sentenced, each of us issued a sliver of cheap coal tar soap. I worried the scaly skin would creep up my body…and yuh know…down – blind and impotent felt like the shittiest possible friends.
So, Jericho had promised to read what he could find, check his jokey computer in his lopsided room. He had pushed a pencil and the corner of a notebook under my cell door after lights out. I sounded it out too: “Ex, as in ex-girlfriend… Zeema, as in…fuck I doh know!
“J, just check the letters on the paper, Man. And look up Im…po…tent.” I had whispered through the locked door. I showed him my hand. His gaze drifted, settled on my concern. Eczema could cause that, right? It was what I had heard.
He steupsed, smiled, and I heard his boots moving away, back to his usual slow patrol. It was how he always walked the corridor: a deliberate heel-to-toe as his foot came down, the back foot flicking up like an Ibis foot. Strangely balletic for someone so solid.
I moved back to my bed, the light still off, and slid under the rough sheet again, fixing myself into the mattress hollow. Like a fossil impression, it had formed over the past 10 months, while I waited for my court date.
We hadn’t actually been fighting, when Hayden died. We all knew each other from school; we were close. Friends, I guess? What’s the word for ‘closer than friends, but not quite ride-or-die pardna’? The newspaper men had made up some shit. I had been stabbed and Hayden had been stabbed, both of us in the belly, is what they said. The thin, idiot-looking lawyer who had come home the day after the police, told me to “leave it just so”. He knew the police, they knew what they were doing, he said. His face was narrow and his loose shirt collar made his neck look like a swizzle stick in a pot of dahl. He had come to my bedroom without taking his shoes off, sat on the mattress on the floor with me, shifting aside the stained sheet to put his bony arse directly on the sponge. Probably thought our brick shed was dirtier than his shoes. I watched him sweat and did not move my fan. Its whirring blades were exposed, and dangerous.
I didn’t tell the police that J had been there – a witness, a participant…neither had Hayden said so. Hayden had been the careful one, the one who would always try to stop an argument. Dead.
The half-inch cut in my stomach had healed leaving a raised fudge-coloured mark. Now J showed me his scar outside my cell door, standing in the moonlight of the corridor. His looked like an angry caterpillar. The night we did it, we made the pact by the sapodilla grove and J had said we should pelt the old knife into the ravine.
We had laughed so hard at this idea; then worried people might hear us. But the weed and puncheon meant we didn’t care, not really. It had made my thinking go round and round. We were through half the bottle when we watched each other naked, sitting in a ring to let our nervous lips graze each other’s. We wanted to taste how the weed and rum changed in our mouths. Hayden’s mouth tasted of syrup, J said. Mine like the smell of nail polish.
After, we sat and drained the bottle. I had pressed my wound through my t-shirt, wincing, sniggering and feeling giddy and horrified at the excitement. Blood brothers…what did it really mean?
Hayden walked home. The next day he stayed in bed, his sheets stiff with rancid sweat and crusted blood. The day after, he went to the hospital. His cut got septic.
Then the police arrived. Hayden had told them to speak with me. Two fat officers had stood and asked me questions, my Mom watching me from across the empty living room, pretending to file her nails while I stared at the bare red bricks of our walls. The cement oozed solid between them like cake batter. The polyester curtains fluttered lightly over the holes for windows.
What did I do for a living? I was not working, I said.
“He’s a night auditor,” Mom told them. Her nails were a metallic red, a colour she had worn for years. She liked the sound of ‘night auditor’, without knowing what it was. About a year ago now I had been checking in late night visitors at a hotel where guests paid for the room by the hour. It was my job to change the sheets when they left. J and Hayden had come once and borrowed a room but only stayed 20 minutes. Mostly, if a couple spent just one hour I would check the sheets for damp spots, and leave them if the wet wasn’t too obvious. Nobody complained. The dim light in the rooms was so low nobody could properly see the bedding anyhow.
Now that I was in a cell of my own, I appreciated regularly cleaned sheets. These had the initials “YDC” all around the edge in blue ink like a tattoo. At our weekly assemblies Father Maurizio Aquinas would bellow: “You are the chosen 400!” We sat in rows of wooden chairs looking up at him. “Will you lead us painfully to redemption…or stay in this hollow home?” We had to shout in unison: “Lead”. That was his catchphrase. The “us” was them outside, the rest of society, those who felt loved, he said. We, the chosen 400, were the important ones, he said, although boys came and went so it was never a fixed number except in his story. How were we important! In his white cassock, white palms raised to the roof, he would let his hands suddenly fall dramatically by his side to our chorus.
J had been a prison guard since we left school. Only now I was getting to see where he worked: had this somehow always been our plan? I would get to see what he meant when he said some of the inmates were “cool to look at”. I didn’t see it. J said he got given the gym duties, but I think he asked for them. He had to monitor about 50 of us at a time when some took off their vests and sweated on the training benches. He would walk around looking surly, his big hands in his dark blue uniform. Sometimes, he would stop and talk to me – it was allowed – but he said it was better others didn’t know that we were friends; or that we had been neighbours.
I was bench-pressing when my eyes trained on the weights bar and not the hot galvanise roof above. That was when I noticed the blackness in the crook of my hand.
A week later in the gym, J walks past me and slides a small yellow cube into my hand. It’s wrapped in waxy paper and from the feel I know that it’s soap. “Sulphur flavoured…or whatever…for the skin,” he whispers, and keeps loping between the benches, his eyes scanning bodies. I slide it into my shorts pocket without looking around. But I know other boys will have seen. Nothing goes unchecked here. We trade half-smoked cigarettes; torn magazine pages with naked women photos – sometimes so faded and used there’s no actual picture between her legs – and extra squares of toilet paper. For emergencies.
The problem with having things here? Keeping them. It’s life in reverse – ownership exposes you, like an open wound. The bigger you are; the better looking you are; the more you have…all the differences that are good outside, inside these make your inevitable fall that much harder.
Soap is what freed me. It sounds ridiculous. Hearing those words in my head…soap freed me. Not just any soap but a meagre block that refused to lather and that smelled of boiled egg. It was dry and old like a block of useless cheese, and it hadn’t made any difference to my skin. What was its real value?
I could have just given it to him when he asked. I knew the trade-off: if he couldn’t take that thing, he would take something else in its place, because people got committed to the idea of taking some thing. But I hesitated, and then felt a wave of resistance: because to hand my stupid smoothed out lump of soap to someone else in the shower block would have been to say: “Take the fuck whatever you want.” Before too long there would be no asking. A few boys had killed themselves because of it...losses full of irretractable regret.
It was the fight that put me on J’s corridor. Did I know it would? The twist of slippery bodies. The heft of hard knees in soft cavities. The blood.
J had seen this happen before, but he played it down. Sometimes he lost his self-assurance.
“Nutin’ go happen here, Boy. Not to you.” J whispers though my cell door. This is what he always says. It helps me, hearing it. It’s dark already, I can tell from the moonlight in the corridor. “You can hide in my place.”
It’s the stupidest plan I’ve heard. I think this every time he says it, which he does all the time now. It almost feels as if he’s trapped too.
But the stupider part is, I feel myself thinking it through: the pathway set open before me all the way to the uselessness outside, beyond the high wall.
I want to vomit. My hands are on the unlatched door. I want to test its give. I hear J’s boots moving away once he’s done it, back to his usual slow patrol: a deliberate heel-to-toe as his foot comes down, the back foot flicking up like an Ibis foot. I hear his keys in the corridor gates, hear them creak open, him stepping through before he pulls them closed, no click, and keeps walking.
I move back to my bed, the light still off, and slide under the rough sheet again, fixing myself into the mattress hollow. Like a fossil impression, it has formed over time, and somehow I’m just not sure I want to leave. Would Jericho?
Rajendra Shepherd: "My audiobook We’ll always have tea is now on Amazon, Audible and iTunes. My stories have been published in SAND journal and Floidoip. My poems have been published by the British Medical Journal, The Good Men Project and the Dragon Poet Review. I am a writer, journalist, and academic at the University of the West Indies in St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago."