The Thinking Man’s Bastille
By Paul Starkey
Today he would escape from prison.
Jack had to, because incarceration was slowly killing him. Not in a physical sense, but it was slowly sapping his will to live. Already, just six months into his sentence, he saw signs of the ennui that would eventually claim his life if he didn’t break out. He slept more than ever before, yet was always tired, lethargy bordering on paralysis, and his appetite was fading like the libido of an old man. He didn’t wash very often, and sometimes went days without even brushing his teeth.
He spent most of his time on his bed reading books downloaded onto his wafer, or watching the wall mounted scroll, though he minimised the screen resolution; rather than it filling the entire wall it was shrunk to the size of a television set from the cathode-ray era. Sometimes it still seemed too big. When he did leave the bed to wander the confines of his prison, he did so with the shambling gait of a zombie.
“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”
It was one of many homilies his father had regularly uttered. Like “Ten men play harder than eleven” or “Always back the outsider in a three horse race”. Archaic wisdom from another age—after all there were no horses anymore outside of a zoo—but sometimes there was a kernel of some greater truth ensconced within those words, but even if there hadn’t been he would still have missed them, still have missed his dad.
Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time might have been the wisest of them all though, and maybe the one Jack should have paid closest attention to whilst growing up, but children rarely pay enough attention to their parents, and boys especially to their fathers, and he hadn’t given a moment’s thought to the consequences when opportunity arose.
They ended up being called simply the October Riots, the third instance of spontaneous civil disobedience that year. People became almost blasé about them.
The cause was never fully explained. Maybe it was down to the undertrained constable who hit some old biddy with a plastic bullet as he tried to disperse a group of stone throwers. Certainly the rioters claimed that was the spark, but everyone had an angle; the Tories blamed the increase in numbers claiming welfare, mainly Scottish migrants, whilst Democratic Labour blamed the Tories for cutting the value of the welfare stipend. Socialist Labour, meanwhile, blamed Democratic Labour because they always did, and as usual the whole thing descended into a DL/SL slanging match which allowed the Conservatives to push another welfare cap through parliament.
None of this mattered to Jack, he’d only ventured out because of curiosity. He wanted to see what was occurring, and he’d taken any excuse to venture outside back then, he hated feeling hemmed in, loved fresh air and wide open spaces, even rain rarely deterred him.
He wasn’t completely stupid however, like a sensible tourist at Pamplona he was content to watch the action from the side-lines; he had no intention of actually running with the bulls.
He hadn’t been alone in this, around the periphery of the violence a curious, carnival atmosphere sprang up. People brought their drinks out from the pubs, street vendors relocated from other areas and started doing a roaring trade. Even when a police sweeper exploded it didn’t dent the mood, instead people treated the flames cast into the air from the detonation like an impromptu firework display.
Gradually the lines between rioters and riot-watchers blurred and, like a sailor hearing a siren song, Jack found himself tantalised into drawing closer to the rocks. One minute he was downing a bottle of beer and dancing with a cute redhead, the next he was clambering in through a smashed storefront along with several others, passing more who were already clambering out the other way, clutching stolen booty tight to their chests.
The shop had been one of the few still operating on the high-street, and the irony was that if he’d been caught up with the crowds who broke into the empty shops either side his sentence would have been lighter, because he wouldn’t have actually stolen anything. As it was when the police nabbed him he had a rolled up scroll under each arm. Irony number two was the fact that they were last year’s model, barely worth anything second hand, inferior even to his cheap Brazilian import.
The stupidity of his crime didn’t serve as any kind of mitigation, and neither did his previously spotless record. Messages needed to be sent, examples made. All the fact of this being his first offence brought him was the option of something called “nuanced incarceration”. An option he jumped at because the idea of going to an actual prison scared the hell out of him.
It was odd to put shoes on; he mostly went around barefoot, and though they were old and well-worn they pinched tight as new shoes now. He’d taken a shower for the first time in days, already invigorated by the thought of freedom the hot water roused him further. He ate his heartiest breakfast in weeks.
As he walked towards the door his mind wandered. Where would he go, how long could he stay free, what would the authorities do when they caught him? He already knew they would, he had no money, no identification, and wasn’t remotely suited to the life of a fugitive. To stay free would entail either becoming an actual criminal, and taking what he needed from others through guile or force, or else dropping out of society altogether. Neither option appealed. He wasn’t tough enough for a life of crime, and he liked comfort too much for the life of a downout, and even if he could bear it, downouts were becoming scarcer all the time, so he’d stand out like a sore thumb unless he ventured south to the Cornish Wastes.
And why on earth would anyone choose to do that?
No, he would be caught quickly, but his hope was that by virtue of escaping his incarceration the authorities would send him to a real prison. Odd that suddenly a life of locks and lags didn’t seem so bad.
He’d turned these thoughts over and over a thousand times before, and nothing new came of today’s cogitations, but that hadn’t been the point, he’d just wanted to distract himself from the feelings of dread that crawled over him like ants as he neared the door.
It didn’t work. Each step was a struggle. The urge to turn back, to just curl into a ball on the floor, was strong. Palpitations started. His heart began to pound and his chest seemed to tighten around it. But he fought on until he reached the door to his prison.
Except it wasn’t really the door to his prison. It was the door to his flat. The door to his prison was buried deep inside his mind.
He got as far as putting his hand on the latch, but he couldn’t bring himself to disengage the bolt. Dark terrors were pulling hard against him now: the fear was rising as panic threatened to overwhelm him.
He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t even open the door, let alone step… outside. He knew it was irrational, but he was convinced that if he did all would be lost. The world would swallow him, he’d be engulfed within its vast emptiness like a single drop of rain within an ocean. He needed to stay safe, needed comforting walls around him.
He stepped back. The panic eased, and his heart began to calm. By the time he reached his bedroom he felt himself again, though this was no benefit. In the absence of fear there came only shame.
Nuanced Incarceration. In a time of austerity, of quadruple dip recessions, it was the latest thing. Cheaper than prison, more humane too, if you believed the hype. Jack didn’t, not anymore. What was the American term; cruel and unusual.
The particular punishment strand of Nuanced Incarceration Jack had volunteered for was called ICA; Induced Custodial Agoraphobia. Induced initially in Jack’s case by several hypnotic sessions and reinforced by regular, mandatory injections of a benzodiazepine derivative.
They said it was reversible, but somehow Jack suspected his three year tariff as a prisoner in his own home might turn out to be a life sentence.
He wanted desperately to cry, but sobbing required energy, and just getting to the front door had left him frail and weak, so he crawled under the duvet and let himself drift off to sleep, even though it wasn’t yet three in the afternoon.
In the instant before consciousness faded he took comfort in a tiny spark of defiance buried deep inside him that, despite lacking the oxygen of hope, somehow continued to burn.
Tomorrow he would escape from prison.