A Prison Story

Inside a prison
Even at night, a prison is never truly silent. As you sit in your cramped little office, counting the ever-expanding hours until morning, you’ll hear the staccato of coughing or a prisoner crying out in his sleep, a sudden alarm announcing an overdose, and the whirr of CCTV. On some nights, you’ll welcome the temporary illusion of quietness as if the prison has merged into a single sleeping giant, and you are only the person awake in the world. But on other nights, without really knowing why, the atmosphere becomes oppressive and foreboding. 

I met Roy Clarke on one of my first nights on the watch. He was older than the other officers, myself included. Still, he shared the same stocky physique of his colleagues - the widening midriff, a generous beard making up for the lack of hair on his head and a smattering of tattoos inked so long ago they had blurred into nothing. I think he must have noted my horrified expression as I first entered J Wing and thought I needed looking after. He was right. The open prisons I was used to seemed like holiday camps in comparison.  At HMP Headingly, the architecture and cramped conditions had changed little since Victorian times.

The squeeze on recruitment meant I saw only a few officers on the Wing at any given time. It was easy to lose sight of my colleagues, who vanished completely among the swathes of prisoners, glaring at me as I walked past. I sensed violence could erupt at any moment.  Roy said even the career criminals felt intimidated by the place, with some men so terrified, they refused to leave their cells.

That’s why I appreciated having Roy with me; someone to respond with when the fighting started and an ally to share the burden of the 15-minute suicide checks. Roy looked like he’d lived and breathed the prison for so long nothing would ever phase him. But I was wrong.

We were holed up in our office on J Wing when Roy told me the story of Caleb Nichol. For once, the prisoners were sleeping soundly, and we were swapping football stories. Roy worshipped the Gunners while I was a Canary's fan, so it was hardly a meeting of minds, but it passed the time. I’m sure we'd of carried on in the same fashion if Roy hadn’t knocked my mug over and spilt my coffee all over the floor.

Roy muttered some choice words and then said, ‘Go and get me a mop from the storeroom, will you? Don’t want to get electrocuted by all these cables.’

 He’d made the mess, but I got up as Roy had been good to me. I made my way across the landing to the storeroom and attempted to unlock it as quietly as possible.

The storeroom used to be a cell, like all the others on the landing. Now it was crammed floor to ceiling with an assortment of mops and cleaning products. As I opened the door, a cold blast of air hit me like a freight train. I looked to see if a window was open, but everything was secure, so I figured the heating was off. Shivering and eager to get back to my office, I grabbed a mop and bucket and locked up the cell again.

When I got back to the office, Roy said, ‘Find the bucket, alright did you? Everything as it should be?’

‘Sure, but it's bloody freezing in there. I guess heating an empty cell’s a waste of money, but it was like walking into a fridge.’

‘You didn’t notice anything strange?’

‘No, why should I? It’s just a storeroom.' I started wiping the coffee off the floor. The mop made quick work of it.  ‘What’s wrong with it?’

‘I’ve always thought there was something odd about that cell,’ said Roy. ‘I know it's daft, but I avoid going in there if I can. I always get the feeling that I’m being watched.’

I’d always assumed that Roy was above that sort of nonsense, but he seemed ill at ease. ‘Watched by who?’ I said.

‘This is probably going to sound daft, but I think there’s something in that storeroom. I don't mean flesh and blood, or even a ghost, but that used to be Caleb Nichol’s old cell, and there’s something wrong with it. It’s more of a feeling than anything concrete.’ He paused for a moment as if looking for the right words.  ‘It’s like an echo. Something you can’t see, but you know it’s there.’

‘Don’t be daft, Roy,’ I said, trying to lighten the mood. ‘We both know the supernatural is a load of mumbo jumbo. I didn’t think you were the type to believe in that sort of thing.’

Roy chuckled. ‘You won't find me hiding under the duvet frightened of monsters, but I was brought up a Catholic. And I’ll tell you this for nothing - if Satan ever fancied a tour of this prison, he'd pick Caleb Nichol as his guide. 

I could sense Roy gearing up for one of his prison anecdotes, so I rested the mop by the door and sat down as comfortably as possible on my rigid plastic chair. The frown on Roy's face suggested this wouldn't be one of his usual light-hearted stories.

‘I’ve met hundreds of evil men but Caleb Nichol is the one who really sticks in my mind. He was in for murder, five little kids - completely random killings. He was finally caught after murdering his mother and almost killing his father. With six life sentences to his name, he was never coming out.

‘Of course, child killers suffer a barrage of insults when they come into the jail, and Nichol was high profile. I’d already seen several TV documentaries about all his crimes, and so had everyone else. So when he came out of the first-night centre, the prisoners all knew who he was, but everyone was deathly quiet. New inmates walk tend with a swagger, trying to show they’re not to be messed with, but Nichol was different. He had an aura about him that made you feel unsettled.  He just stared straight ahead, relaxed. Like he was taking a stroll in the park.

‘As Nichol went into his cell, I tried to walk past and accidentally tripped him up. You know I’d never goad a prisoner, so I apologised, quite expecting all manner of abuse from him. But instead, he got up and said nothing. He just looked at me. I can’t tell you the feeling of fear that came over me. I stared into his coal-black eyes, and for a moment, I was terrified - because - he'd seen me. It's hard to explain, but it’s was like being recognised by a monster, an unnatural thing, who would carry my slight until it had got its revenge.  I stood there for ages, or so it felt, almost in a trance. The officers took him into his cell, and I carried on down Spur. But the look in his eyes stayed with me. I’m not sure I will ever forget it.'

‘Child killer’s always give me the creeps.’ I said, then shut up again quickly as I remembered Roy hated being interrupted in the middle of a story.

‘Nichol’s first cellmate was Rory McNulty, Roy continued as if oblivious to my interruption. ‘A big Irish fella who had strangled his wife and his sister. He was a nasty piece of work, scared of no one and nobody - apart from Nichol. A few days after Nichol’s arrival, we noticed a change in McNulty. His usual bravado was gone. His skin had taken on a sickly pallor, and instead of striding about the Wing as he usually did, he sat the corner by himself. I asked him what the matter was, and he mumbled something about his new cellmate. He said Nichol kept him awake, constantly muttering to himself. He said Nichol was weird.

‘A week later, McNulty asked to move cells. He said he’d wake up in the early hours, and Nichol would be standing over him chanting in a foreign language. He said their cell stank, and Nichol gave him the creeps. I spoke to Nichol, who gave me one of his sickly sweet smiles and said he must have been sleepwalking. Said he couldn’t do anything about it.

'As for McNulty, he’d done himself no favours, and we all enjoyed his newfound meekness. He kept pleading with us to move him, but we refused. I feel bad now for not taking him seriously - given what happened next.’

‘Oh, come on, Roy,’ I said, forgetting my vow not to interrupt. ‘You know these fellows will try it on when they can. You can’t blame yourself for anything in this place. These blokes are devious. You know that.’

‘I know, but it was a strange business. One night about 2am there was a commotion. I was on duty, and I was one of the first officers at the scene. McNulty was sitting on the edge of his bed crying and rocking. His arms were lacerated with deep slashes. There was blood everywhere. Nichol sat on the top bunk, and when I asked him what had happened, he said McNulty had done it to himself. And McNulty just kept on rocking, saying, ‘I did it, I did it. He told me to, he told me to.

‘We carried McNulty to the hospital wing where they bandaged him up. He was acting like he’d gone crazy. Maybe he’d got hold of Spice or some other drug, but his tests came back negative. Nothing seemed to settle him. He said he saw shadows on the walls reaching out to him, and his condition continued to deteriorate. A couple of weeks later, he was gone.’

I could see this memory was upsetting. Roy and with hindsight, I should have returned to our chat about the playoffs. Instead, I found myself asking, ‘Do you think McNulty's madness was caused by Nichol?’

‘Not at first, until I realised every time Nichol had a new cellmate, it always ended badly. One inmate had an accident in the machine room, cut his hand clean off. Another overdosed on heroin and died; a third got onto the roof and jumped to his death. And so it went on. All the prisoners became frightened of Nichol. No one would speak to him, which only pleased him more. Even the officers became afraid of him and avoided him when they could.

‘The other odd thing was his love of what I called his ‘collections’. He worked as a prison cleaner and got busted on cell sweeps several times for concealing scraps he’d scavenged from the kitchen waste bins; Chicken bones; rotting meat; putrid things. He nearly lost his job several times.’

‘Why on earth would he keep hold of crap like that?’ I said.

‘Who knows? But he was the kiss of death to his roommates, that’s for sure. Nichol only ever had one visitor. He was a tall, thin man, always immaculately dressed in an expensive suit. They would sit together in the visitor's centre, giggling and whispering conspiratorially. I looked at the name in the signing-in sheet once, wondering if the man was a relative, but I didn't recognise it. Some sort of foreign name. He was very similar to Nichol, though - the same shark eyes and a grin that hinted at evil and depravity.

‘Then, without any warning, we found Nichol dead. I opened up his cell one morning and discovered his body hanging from the top bunk. I checked his wrist for a pulse, and it was still warm and clammy to the touch. I remember the expression on his face; his contorted mouth still had a hint of that mocking grin. Even in death, he managed to unnerve me.

‘Of course, no one in the prison was sorry he was dead, and I was one of a handful of mourners at his funeral. The tall man was there, although he didn’t seem very upset, and the odd thing he said to me sticks in my mind.  I had gone over to him after the service and said whatever Nichol’s crimes, it was terrible for a man to take his own life, and the tall man just smiled at me and said, "There’s no need to grieve for Caleb. He’s with his father now." I often puzzled over that comment as I’d heard Nichol say several times how he hated God and his father was still living as far as I knew.

‘After Nichol’s death, two new prisoners moved into the cell, and we thought that would be the end of it. We were wrong. ‘The first lag, Thomas Colvin was a strong, silent type, resigned to his sentence. He was an armed robber, in and out of prison for 30 years and going nowhere fast. The second, Michael Fitch still only a teenager. He got tanked up one night and knifed a doorman at a Club. Anyway, we thought this would be a good match, as Colvin would teach Fitch to keep his head down and steer clear of the nutters, but it wasn’t to be. A few days after they went into that cell, they started kicking off - screaming at each other and getting into fights. Colvin was taken to solitary, and Fitch began to self-harm. Not as bad as McNulty, but nasty enough. He said he couldn’t get to sleep and heard voices in his cell, telling him to hurt himself.

‘That seemed like a horrible case of deja vu, so I got Fitch referred to a psychiatrist. Not that it did him any good. He swapped his prescription for hard drugs, and soon he was blue lighting his way out of the prison as well.

‘And so it went on. Same cell, same trouble, until I started to notice things myself.’

Roy paused for a moment and took a large sip of his coffee. I may have imagined it, but when he started speaking again, his voice seemed quieter, and I noticed he kept glancing towards the storeroom.

‘I’d be on the Wing late at night and I'd see a tiny ball of bright light hovering about in the middle of the landing. You could follow it with your eyes as it flew around, looping the loop. I told Big Simon, who laughed and said I was seeing Willow-the-wisps, but then he noticed it too. The light disappeared after a couple of nights, only to be replaced by something more sinister. A black shadow appeared, darting at speed, right past the cell. You’d get a strange compulsion to look up, and out of the corner of your eye, you’d see a dark mass, similar to the size and shape of Caleb Nichol.  I’ve already told you I don't believe in ghosts, yet I swear I saw that shadow and heard the sound of footsteps ringing on the metal walkway. There was no one there, but I heard them stop right outside his cell and for a while, I swapped my shifts over to H wing, just to avoid being here.

‘Then one day, the Governors said the cell had been flooded, and they were turning it into a storeroom. Maybe they’d noticed the high level of incidents connected with it. During the refurb, the decorators discovered one of Nichol’s macabre collections, hidden behind a loose brick; a twisted mass of feathers and bone and a piece of paper with strange symbols scribbled all over it. Written in blood, they said, although that sounds a bit fanciful even for Nichol. I didn't see the paper myself; I think it got thrown away with the rest of the rubbish.

‘After that, the lights and noises began to fade, although, to this day, I still hear the odd noise from inside that room, even though it’s locked and empty. If I were prone to flights of fancy, I'd say Nichol still lingers there, like a fluke wrapping itself around your liver and slowly squeezing.’

Roy looked upwards towards the cell again and for a second, I thought I heard the faint sound of footsteps walking slowly towards us, before a commotion on the floor below sent us running to investigate.

A week later, the shift rotas changed, and I didn't see Roy for a while. When we finally caught up, he seemed nervous and troubled, older somehow. When I asked what was wrong, he said the prison had finally got to him, and he’d put in for a transfer to HMP Grendon. Certainly, his health seemed to have deteriorated, taking with it his usual cheerfulness.

Roy never made his move down to Aylesbury. On his very last day, an officer found him lying face down outside the door of that storeroom. A massive aneurysm, dead before he hit the ground. In the open coffin at his funeral, you could still see the lines from the metallic grate imprinted on his cheek.

With Roy dead, no one mentioned Caleb Nichol to me again, but I’ll never forget my colleague or his story. And if I ever need a mop from the storeroom; I’ll always send somebody else.

* * *





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