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A backward and dilapidated province

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Robbie plucked the card from the holder outside the door: Anquetil 2737, and tore it in two.

‘Oi.  Wanton destruction of His—I mean, Her Majesty’s property, that.’  The young screw grinned.  ‘And there was me thinking you wanted it as a souvenir.’

‘No fear. I don’t need reminding.’ He bit back the near-automatic 'sir'. The screw didn't seem to notice.

‘Come on, then.’  Robbie walked along the landings, past closed doors, trying not to think of the men inside. He handed in his blankets, sheets, plate, drinking mug and book of rules for the Guidance of Convicted Prisoners, Male.  He took off his prison uniform and dressed in his own clothes, noting the tight waistband—prison stodge swelled rather than fattened the belly—made a parcel of letters and books to take with him and received fifteen shillings courtesy of the Discharged Prisoner’s Aid Society.  He sat in the Reception Block with the two others due for release that day, mindlessly spooning porridge and gulping tea.  

He had no earthly idea what came next.  He had decided from early on that his survival depended on accepting that his agency had been usurped by this system while never acknowledging its right to do so.  Now he was about to get his agency back, and he didn’t know what to do with it. There were people out there who bore him goodwill and sympathy, he knew that. He had received more letters than he was allowed to open—the rules stipulated one a fortnight, the rest they told one about, but returned to sender, read (bafflingly) only by the Governor.  One would think he had better things to be doing. The only people he could think of contacting without revulsion were men he’d known inside, and that was probably not the brightest move he could make, even if he had lately heard more sense talked by housebreakers, fraudsters and robbers than the medical and judicial establishments combined.

At ten to eight, the gates opened.  It was sensory excess, panic: it took him a few moments to focus, to steady his breathing if not his pulse.  And then he saw them, at first more like blurry watercolours than three-dimensional persons: one rather spare of build, wearing twill trousers, an Aran jumper and an open peacoat, hatless, greying fair hair plastered to his head by the mizzling damp; the other more squarely-made, in burberry and wide-brimmed hat, standing with the awkward air of someone for whom even brief immobility in such conditions was physically painful.  Robbie had a powerful impulse to run for it.

‘What the hell are you doing here?’

‘You’d scarcely believe it if I told you, Robbie, but a friend of ours is getting out of the Scrubs today.’

‘You bloody, bloody bastard, Ralph Lanyon.’ 

‘Come here. Come here and say hullo to me.’ Ralph drew him into a startled and startlingly public embrace.

Released, Robbie shook hands with Laurie. ‘Look here, thanks. You didn’t have to.’

‘Sort of did, actually, don’t you think?’  He feels guilty, Robbie thought, and resents me for his guilt; which makes just about as much sense as what I resent him forbeing alive when Lewis is dead.

‘Come on, let’s go for a drink.’

‘Nothing I’d like more.  But where?  It’s eight o’clock in the sodding morning.’

They sat without speaking in the car, smoking and taking turns to nip out of Ralph’s hipflask. Undistinguished blended whisky and a Craven Plain, after nine months of enforced sobriety and matchstick roll-ups was literally dizzying luxury. Robbie’s head fogged up as if the tobacco were kif. Rarely uncomfortable with social silence on his own behalf, though he was sensitive to people who minded it, he recognised that one of the many small unfairnesses of his situation was that responsibility for conversation devolved upon him.  Polite enquiry about work or mutual acquaintances seemed impossibly pallid and genteel; it wasn’t that the standard of discourse inside was elevated, though sometimes it was surprisingly thought-provoking, it was just never inconsequential: every small kindness, every snide retort meant something.  Christ, was this the way it was going to be? Little accesses of nostalgia for the world in there?  It had to stop, anyway: he wasn’t about to be the man who’d failed to readjust.

He opened his mouth and started the flow of idle, inoffensive jaw, finely-tuned on a war's-worth of wardrooms.  Oh Dorset—what a coincidence—bloody long way to come, you must have been up in the middle of the night—I’m touched, really—Freer tipped you off?—well, good of him—radio engineering—rewarding, I daresay—the latest Greene?—and for the—no names, no packdrill—I’ll be sure to pick it up—and so on, for an excruciating half hour.

‘Well, look, thanks awfully.  It meant a lot to me.  I hope you don’t mind, but I haven’t actually got anything fixed. I’m going to have to do quite a bit of telephoning—’  It occurred to him that they might offer money—oh hell, it wasn’t like he couldn’t do with it, but he also couldn’t take it.

‘What the fuck are you on about, Robbie?’ Ralph said softly.  ‘You’re coming with us.’

*

That night, after dinner, they sat by the fire—Laurie and Robbie in the armchairs, Ralph sprawled on the hearthrug, leaning against Laurie’s chair, and Robbie started to talk—there was no point in not, he said.  About the long isolation of bang-up, the slopping out, the food, the 40-watt bulbs, the curious pecking-orders, the abominable race prejudice (the screws were the worst), the endless, endless mailbags.  But most of all about the men: their characters, their friendships. Laurie perceived, as much from the growing tension of Ralph’s neck and shoulder under his hand than as from anything Robbie actually said, that he’d been in love with someone.

About to climb the stairs, Robbie turned and said, ‘I understand I sometimes make rather a row in the night, if I’m unsettled or whatnot, strange bed.  Sorry.  Do try to ignore me.’

He did, too, and ignoring it wasn’t easy.  

‘It’s not clink—’s been like this since since Lewis,’ Ralph muttered.

They listened to a bit more of it.  Laurie said, ‘Go on, before I change my mind.’

*

What an utterly bizarre arrangement it was, Laurie thought, having to go down the stairs and up again to the other bedroom—and not one he relished first thing in the morning, dot-and-carry, dot-and-carry.  He tapped on the smaller bedroom door, and receiving an affirmative grunt in reply, put his head round.  The disposition of the blanket told him their legs were entwined, and Robbie had enveloped Ralph’s left hand in his own, pressing it to his chest.  Laurie did much the same thing with Ralph’s hand himself: universal instinct, he supposed. Ralph propped himself up and looked blearily over Robbie’s sleeping head.

‘Coffee?  We’ve only got Camp, but it’s probably tolerable with whisky in it.’

‘Thanks. Spuddy—never mind. Thanks.’

*

‘Where’d you learn this desirable accomplishment, Robbie?’  Ralph asked. 'Your grandmother?'

‘No, curiously enough. She didn't like them. Proprietor of a rather dubious bistro in Abbeville. He got a touch truculent one evening and started listing all the faults of the sales anglais, including their ignorance of even the simplest cooking, and their total inability to learn. Wouldn’t let up until someone took him on. And then, natch, he’d try to back you into the larder.  Apparently he was notorious; used to do it every time an unwary Englishman wandered in. A sexual fetish of sorts, I suppose.  But I can now make decent omelettes. Nice to live in the country and have the eggs for it.'

'We excite the charwoman's pity to rather shameless advantage,' Laurie remarked.

Ralph snorted. 'Speak for yourself, Spud. He's outrageous, Robbie. Corners the poor woman whenever he's shilly-shallying on a deadline and subjects her to a pot of undrinkable swaddy slops. Next thing we know we're tripping over sugarless sponge cakes. Perfectly disgusting.'

Robbie smiled. 'Yes, I know that one rather well myself. My mother died when I was fairly small,' he explained to Laurie, 'and the local females presumed my father and me helpless as babes new-born. Dad wouldn't have any, though. Here, I thought I’d push off the day after tomorrow.  You’ve been too kind.’

‘You’re welcome to stay as long as you like, you know,’ Laurie said carefully.

‘Better not.  Sleep deprivation makes for a very suggestible state, you know.  And from what I hear, that doesn’t suit you one bit—’

Laurie decided to take it well. ‘Really, Robbie. I didn’t think you had that much bitchery in you. Of course, you’re perfectly right.  What are you going to do, do you know?’

‘I know what I’m not doing. I’m not going to the Continent, changing my name, any of that sort of carry on.  I don’t blame men who do.  I just can’t, that’s all: it would be as if I were ashamed of the injustice done me, and I’m not. I’ve got to try. If I can’t make a go of it here I’ll consider it—abroad, I mean—not the name. Norse out of Brittany, I rather like it.  But it won’t be my first resort.  I’m quite used to being the local disappointment, after all. Here, grub’s up.’

Laurie was touched despite himself by the defiant simple-mindedness of it; and he saw it worked liquefaction in Ralph—the invincible innocence of him, that he was susceptible to his own best amorous art.  It seemed they had come a long way to be here, yet it had more of the character of a prolonged detour, a retreat rather than a homecoming.  Laurie neither felt nor sensed reproach; weariness and loneliness, perhaps. He looked across the kitchen table at the two bent heads, the dark and the fair, and thought that reconciliation to another person is contingent in perpetuity, renewed daily after each night’s solace and sleep.