The signing in was painless enough, with Alex giving his name to the cute receptionist, showing his ID and sitting down. It could have been a hospital waiting room, with it’s sanitised appearance, magazines laid out in neat rows for the visitors. The visitors themselves looked as excited as if they were waiting to see the doctor. Alex didn’t note any smiles, apart from the young woman with a child in tow. She wore a smile, albeit a tired one, and it seemed to be more for the benefit of the toddler than anything else. Alex felt his stomach turn, the knot inside twisting around, and he was worried for a moment that he might actually be sick, another reminder of the many visits to the emergency ward.
No one ever wanted to be in a hospital; the places were for the sick and the dead, but prisons were even worse. No matter how much they dressed them up, these were places for the broken and damned, with no pretense of hope. Alex was sick of it. He took his seat and picked up a magazine, although he didn’t see a single word of it. Anything to avoid eye contact with the other lost people who inhabited the waiting room. He tried to calm himself, to bury that knot that was turning deep inside, that apprehension that was eating him. So he stared at the magazine, letting the images and the words blur before his eyes.
The door opened, causing Alex to jerk back to reality. It felt like hours, but the clock revealed that it had been only a few minutes. A guard stood in the doorway, a tall gaunt looking man in a crisp shirt. “Visitors, follow me please.”
Without waiting to see if anyone was following him, the guard turned and disappeared through the doors. The people quietly stood up, droppingtheir magazines and shuffling forward. Alex waited until the last of them had left the room before he stood up. After giving the exit one last glance he followed the others and walked through the entrance to the visitors room.
The room was fairly large, although with the perspex screen cutting the room in two it seemed much smaller. Restrictive. Alex noted that the windows were high up, and although there weren’t bars across them he could see the reinforced mesh, which he considered a bit extreme, considering how high they were and how small the windows were. The mesh did it’s job though, and he felt as trapped as if he were an inmate, with no chance of escape.He looked along the seats and selected an empty one, close to the door.
A buzzer sounded and a door the other side of the screen opened, allowing a procession of men to file in, heads down and looking as equally as happy as the visitors. They made a ratherbizarre group, with nothing more in common than the prison issued clothes they wore. The first time Alex had been in prison, as a visitor, he had expected all the prisoners to be dressed in orange jumpsuits, the result of a television diet of American thrillers. Instead he had been surprised to see that the issued prison kit was much more subdued, consisting of some grey jogging trousers,a blue t-shirt and a sweatshirt. But in spite of the same uniform the inmates were all vastly different. A thug with empty eyes led the parade, the sort of man that looked as if he worked every muscle but the one between his ears. He was closely followed by a skinny lad with tattoos all over his face, couldn’t have been more than eighteen. His eyes darted up to the visitors briefly before returning to stare at the ground. A short, older man came next, his face twisted in a snarl, muttering obscenities to himself. The last prisoner walked through the door with his head held high, making eye contact with everyone in the room, starting with the guards. He smirked at one of them, giving him a wink which was completely ignored.
The prisoner shrugged, still grinning. After giving each person in the room the eye, his eyes finally met Alex’s. Alex immediately looked away, an involuntary reaction. The prisoner sauntered over, taking a seat opposite Alex, a thin but wide smile on his face. Alex looked up nervously. The prisoner picked up the phone, gesturing for Alex to do the same. After the briefest hesitation, Alex picked up the phone and listened.
“Alright little brother?”
Alex took a deep breath and gave a nod to his brother, Shane. “Alright bro. You?”
Shane gave a snort. “I’m fantastic. What do you think you muppet? I’m in prison.”
“Sorry,” said Alex, looking back to the floor.
Shane gave a dismissive wave. “Whatever.” There was a long pause while he glared at his younger brother. Finally he spoke. “I’ve been in worse places, I’ll be straight with you. Anyway, what’s happened at home? You been taking care of things for me?”
“It’s fine, I’ve been doing my best. Jamie’s been doing her homework, I made sure of that. She got her marks back for those exams, she did well.”
“You gotta look after her Alex, until I get out of here. You understand me?”
“I hear you bro, I will.”
“You gotta step up now, be a man. No more messing about.” Shane shook his head. “I know you Alex, I know you’d rather have your nose in book than stand up for yourself, but that’s gotta change little bro. You’re the man of the house now.”
Alex nodded hurriedly. “I told you , I heard you. I’m going to take care of things.”
Shane regarded Alex carefully. “Okay little brother. I’ll be out as soon as I can, but till then it’s all up to you. Don’t let me down.”
Alex looked up at Shane.He’d always been the bigger brother in every sense of the word, and he’d always made sure Alex had known it. It struck Alex as ironic that Shane was now asking him to stand up when every other time he’d tried standing up for himself Shane had been the first to knock him back down. He cleared his throat. “You think you’ll be out soon?”
Shane leaned back in his chair and shrugged. “My lawyer’s submitting an appeal this week. He says that unless the police produce this mystery witness then we stand a pretty good chance of getting the conviction overturned. Said the evidence against me was circumstantial at best.”
Like many thugs, Shane had a surprising gift for the intricacies of British law. He raised his hands, as though the whole situation was a done deal. “If it all goes according to schedule, I’ll be out within a month. So you just have to handle things until then.”
Alex took a deep breath, feeling his head begin to spin, the knot twisting tighter. “You killed a guy Shane.”
“Hey, quiet down there.” Shane looked around nervously. “It’s fine, they can’t prove anything.”
Alex stared at his brother in disbelief. “I don’t care what they can prove. You killed the guy and we both know it.You beat him to death with a crowbar, and they’re just going to let you out?”
“What do you mean you don’t care?” After making sure no one was in earshot, Shane lowered his voice. “He was just some punk who was trying to take over and deal on my corner. I was protecting what was mine. I was protecting us.” The anger subsided a little from his voice. “Don’t you worry little bro, I’ll be taking care of things in no time.”
“Taking care of things like you always have, big brother?”
Shane gave him a curious look. “Yes, of course. Always have, always will. You know that.”
Alex felt that knot back in his stomach, felt his eyes straying to the exit. Instead he rolled up his sleeve. His arm was covered with bruises, a montage of purple and black. “This is taking care of things?”
Shane gave a dismissive snort. “Come on little bro, that’s nothing.”
“Nothing? How about that time you broke my ribs, brother?”
Shane’s lips curled into a snarl. “You dare bring this up now, here? I’ve done nothing but work hard every day since I was 14 to put food on the table for you and Jamie.”
“How admirable. Working hard selling drugs.”
“Doing what I had to do. I did that because you certainly wouldn’t. If it had been left to you, you and Jamie would have starved. I looked after you, protected you.”
Alex could hear his voice raising. “You’d come home high or drunk and knock us about if we so much as looked at you the wrong way.”
“It wasn’t like that little brother.” Shane shook his head. “I may not have been perfect, but I did my very best for you, for Jamie.”
“It’s not good enough Shane. I could take the bruises, I even took the broken bones and I never said anything, never spoke back, never complained. But Jamie… No, I’m not going to let you do the same thing to her.”
“And what do you think you’re going to do about it little brother?”
Alex stood up and replaced the phone in the holder, before turning to walk away.
“Don’t you walk away from me little brother,” Shane yelled at the perspex screen. “You get back here and pick that phone up now.”
Alex stopped. He looked up at the exit for a long time, every fiber of his being screaming at him to walk away. Instead he wrenched himself back around to face his brother. He walked back to the phone and picked it up.
“Now sit down little brother,” growled Shane.
There was pause as the word seemingly echoed around the room. Shane stared back at him.
“No,” repeated Alex. “I’m not going to sit down. I want you to know I’m not going to listen to you anymore. I’m done with this. I’m going to put down this phone and I’m going to go home and pack our bags and I’m going to take Jamie far away to a place where you won’t be able to hurt us anymore.”
Shane was purple with rage. “You’re not taking my family away from me.”
“We’re not your family Shane.” Alex sighed. “We may have the same genes, the same parents, but family’s more than that. So much more. It’s about trust, reliability. Feeling safe. You never understood that.”
“I’m going to find you little brother, I’m going to find you and bring you and Jamie home whether you like it or not, because you are my family, even if you seem to have forgotten that.”
Alex slowly shook his head.“No, you’re not. Because before I leave I’m going to do one last thing. I’m going to go to the police and I’m going to finish giving them all the evidence they need to lock you up for a very long time.”
Shane looked at Alex with disbelief. “You? You’re the mystery witness?”
“Good bye brother.”
Alex slowly replaced the phone on the hook and turned around. Ignoring the ranting, the curious looks from the others, he calmly walked away, closing the door behind him. For the first time in as long as he could remember, he smiled. The knot had disappeared.