Thursday, 23 July 2009

Jodie Foster and the art of ventriloquism -- A.J Kirby

I’ll never forget the first thing he said to me; the way he curled all of his thorny knowledge into that one barbed comment stopped me in my tracks.

‘You don’t look a bit like Jodie Foster,’ he said, weighing me up. Our eyes met; his being deep pools of consciousness; mine dancing around nervously, not wanting to be pinned down.

I attempted a vague, businesslike smile, pretended that I had no idea what he was talking about. Unconsciously, I started to tear at the edge of one of the papers I clutched tightly to my chest. I must have looked wounded. He couldn’t have missed the panic which was bubbling up within me, about to overflow.

And then he smiled. At first it was only a simple tickle at the edges of his thin lips, then his nostrils flared, and finally those dark eyes softened. When he smiled, his whole face opened up.

‘I do apologize,’ he said, his voice much softer now, ‘I don’t get to meet many new people. Please allow me to start again; I’m Francis Croker.’

‘I’m Janet,’ I nodded, simply, ensuring that there was no trace of a quiver in my voice. He probably knew very well who I was and what I was doing there.

He stood up from his low bed and walked toward me with a measured stride. His were the movements of a man that knew that he had all the time in the world. As he walked, he corrected a crease in his shirt. I couldn’t help but notice his wiry muscular build through the fine fabric; the outline of a tattoo on his right shoulder; a glimpse of a scar on his neck-line.

‘Pleased to meet you, Janet,’ he replied, rewarding me with another beaming smile. I felt myself relaxing into his company; felt the burning desire to inform this man that I wasn’t another ‘Jodie Foster’ slipping away with every breath.

Most people would kill for looks like mine, but I’ve come to think of them as an obstacle to be overcome. I’m too fresh-faced; too pretty-pretty; too girly for people to take me seriously. First impressions count, and I already know that most people meet me and immediately want to treat me like a child. Hence his jibe, I suppose; I’d already been warned by the staff that I’d likely be dubbed Jodie Foster by the men.

‘It’s like in that film, The Silence of the Lambs,’ one of the prison officers had said, ‘when they send Jodie Foster, a damn trainee, to go to speak to one of the most notorious criminals in America.’

I steeled myself to ask the question; the one that had been laughed, spat and ignored back into my face by most of the rest of the men on the wing. ‘Would you like to join my discussion group?’ I murmured.

‘Why Janet; I thought you’d never ask,’ replied Francis, pleasantly. ‘And what shall we be discussing?’

‘Well… anything you’d like really. There is no set agenda.’

He wrapped his hands through the bars and leaned in close. I had to fight the urge to step back. ‘Be careful, Janet,’ he whispered. ‘Some of the men in here are very clever… If there is no set agenda, they’re liable to hi-jack the whole discussion for their own… sick… purposes.’

With Francis’s words in mind, I stayed up far too late preparing my notes for the discussion group and absently draining the contents of yet another bottle of red wine. When I finally switched off the laptop and pulled the duvet cover around me, I found that in spite of the lateness of the hour, I still couldn’t sleep. My room felt claustrophobic and oppressing. Through the thin walls, I could hear signs of activity from the flat next door; a hacking cough, the creaking of bed-springs. I tried fished around for my I-Pod so that I could try to cover up the sounds, finally finding it wedged between two of the chunkier textbooks on my bedside table. I shuffled through the stultifying classical music until I found the audio version of Joel Beech’s best-selling book on relaxation techniques.

Instead of relaxing me, Joel’s lilting words inspired those familiar pangs of professional jealousy in my gut. Joel hadn’t exactly been top of our class at university, but his cod-psychological ramblings had found a real niche within the marketplace. Ignoring his lack of credentials, the public lapped him up, especially in America. It helped that Joel had the kind of ‘mysterious’ look that people have come to expect from their psychologists. Conversely, my own book had been reasonably well received in the academic world but had been virtually ignored by everybody else. I reckoned that if it hadn’t been for my decision not to have my photograph on the dust jacket, I wouldn’t have even broken even.

Newton Mills prison loomed like a bloodstain, slap-bang in the middle of the flat, characterless flood-plain on the coast, the only concrete amongst miles of green. It came to remind me of my purpose-built, out-of-town university campus. Only, at least the university’s architects had made cursory efforts to make the new buildings fit in with the surrounding countryside. Here, function came above everything else; it was teeming with barbed wire, fencing, gates and barriers. It was like a vision of hell which never ceased to inspire dread in the beholder.

I pulled the old Lupo onto the narrow access road and rigidly adhered to the 10mph speed limit, playing for time. But in the end, I could put off my arrival no longer. I locked the car, returned to double-check it, and then nervously chuckled to myself; the visitor’s car park was probably one of the safest places in the world to leave the car. It was virtually surrounded by surveillance cameras and besides, all of the criminals were inside.

Taking a deep breath, I walked to the gatehouse. Despite having seen me throughout my induction, and every other working day since, the prison officers at the gate still eyed me with suspicion. I was patted-down, felt-up, sneered-at. Nervously, I brushed the hair out of my face in order that the security camera could record the contours of my face. I knew exactly how I’d look to them; windswept. Ever since the induction, I hadn’t bothered wearing hair-clips, even during the walk from the car. Hair-clips were amongst the long list of banned items, along with belts, phones, laptops, tablets, food, drink, and anything else that could conceivably be thought of as a weapon.

Feeling naked then, I stepped through a metal detector and was granted an escort through to the sterile area, which was contained within a further three perimeter fences. The officer bristled with complaint; he clearly didn’t think that it was part of his job description to guide interfering busybodies like psychologists about the place. We walked down the corridors in an uncomfortable silence; the only sound was the echo of his steel toe-capped boots on the polished floor and the jangle of his keys as he stooped to open more gates every few metres or so, and then close them behind us.

Finally, we reached the prison-proper. Newton Mills had been designed to an old, accepted prison model which I immediately recognized from films. It had a formation like a bicycle wheel, with wings of cells leading off the center like spokes. The center held the control room, the panopticon, from which an officer could see down every wing and check for any trouble. It was the prison’s all-seeing eye.

And so, feeling as though I too was being watched, I rattled along my allocated wing – C-Wing - and informed the men that the first of my discussion groups was to take place in thirty minutes time. The only take-up was an old man called Albert who had rheumy eyes and a terrible complexion, and of course, Francis Croker.

I had managed to commandeer a reading room at the back of the library, but for security purposes, officers had to be stationed on the outside, in the event of any trouble from the men. Unfortunately, as the reading room had glass walls, the officers in question spent much of the hour with their faces squashed against the glass, glaring at the offenders and at me.

The other problem was Albert. I should have known that he’d not exactly contribute to the discussion when I’d seen him shuffling along the corridor, slowly muttering to himself. It seemed that he’d only joined the group for a bit of peace and quiet, for almost as soon as I started speaking, he lurched forward and emitted a heaving, wheezing accordion note of a snore.

‘Don’t worry about him,’ said Francis. ‘He’s a serial group-joiner, is our Albert, but he doesn’t exactly contribute.

I nodded, acknowledging both his attempt to make me feel better and the voice in my head which was making snide remarks about it being an ‘inauspicious start to my time at Newton Mills.’ We sat in silence for a while; me staring at my hands, Francis staring back at the prison officers. I became aware of the faraway sounds from the workshops, the cloying smell of disinfectant which seemed to shroud everything in the prison. At first, I’d thought that the tangy, alcoholic smell was actually emanating from me - my secret night-drinking ways brought to light in a place where no booze was allowed – but soon I’d realized that it was simply the prison’s own, unique stink.

Remarkably however, things did get better. Francis suggested that I should read through my agenda. He immediately began interrupting, suggesting new topics and interesting diversions from the main thread. Gradually, we started to get over our initial hesitancy. We started to engage; we forgot all about the sneering prison officers looking in, and we mused about the meaning of victim hood, the definition of a crime, and the hierarchy of prisons. We started to enjoy ourselves. At the end of the session, Francis even helped me to collect together my notes, which were fanned about the conference table in front of us. He even promised that he’d try to talk some of the other C-Wingers into attending my next session.

Despite myself, I started to look forward to the sessions. I began to feel stirrings in the back of my brain; it was like the return of an old friend. You see, he’d opened my eyes to a whole new world of philosophy. I’d expected my subjects to be mere sounding boards for my own ideas, but instead, Francis made me step out of my own comfort zone. When he asked me: ‘Do prisons work?’ I actually had to stop and think. Have I actually got an opinion about this?

Of course, the prison officers weren’t convinced about the value of my discussion ‘groups’. The sessions continued every Tuesday morning, but no matter how much I tried to drum up interest, the highest attendance remained at only two. In the end, even Albert stopped coming. I didn’t know whether he’d been taken ill, had found another, better group to sleep through, or whether he’d been released. I asked Francis:

‘Oh, don’t worry about Albert; he won’t be getting out of here for a long, long time. He’s one of the lowest of the low, as they’re called,’ said Francis, calmly.

I felt an involuntary shudder run down my spine; I knew what lowest of the low meant now, thanks to Francis, and in spite of my efforts to be a good little liberal, I couldn’t help myself from feeling sick at the thought of being in such close proximity to such a scheming, sick son of a bitch… For some reason, I never even asked myself what Francis was inside for. Maybe that voice in my head was telling me that even by contemplating such a thought, I’d be opening Pandora’s box. Instead, I concentrated on our discussions, which, without Albert’s sleepy presence became even more in-depth.

I began taking copious notes and then staying up all night trying to make sense of my scrawled hand as I typing them up. When I read these frenzied musings back in the morning, the unavoidable conclusion was that something was missing. Some of the truth in Francis’s words was diluted when I transferred them to the laptop. Underneath all the wisdom, there still remained the fact that it was still being written in my own somewhat naïve voice. I began to doubt my own ability, my own profession…

And then came Francis’s proposition; the thing that changed everything.

‘These sessions have got me thinking for the first time in ages,’ said Francis, baring his pearly white teeth. ‘For the first time that I can remember, I’m interested in something.’

Despite myself, I felt a surge of pride.

‘I go back to my cell of an evening,’ he continued, ‘and I write-up what we’ve discussed. Over time, it’s grown into something more than a little hobby of mine… Over time, it’s developed into a kind of poor-man’s psychology of prison book… Would you like to read it?’

Of course I wanted to read it. I wanted to read it more than anything else in the world. And I did read it; I marveled at the beauty of his penmanship, the validity of his every word. I sat in the reading room until I was, not particularly politely, asked to leave. I felt like crying; he had written very the book that was up there in my head, just waiting to be set free. In Francis’s book, ideas of criminality, insanity and society had been triple-distilled and now flowed as smoothly as a mountain stream. Next time I met him, I gushed with admiration.

‘You have to publish,’ I started.

‘It’s against the rules,’ he said wearily. ‘There’s nothing you or I could do. You will be my only reader… but I’m happy with that.’

I wasn’t. It felt like the real crime was not allowing this wondrous text to see the light of day. It was the sort of writing that would really change things.

‘Unless…’ he said. ‘Ah, it doesn’t matter…’

But my interest was piqued. I touched his hand to signal that he should continue with whatever train of thought he was on.

‘Okay; what if you were to publish the book under your own name?’ he asked, quietly.

At first, Francis’s proposition sounded like heresy, but after the third glass of wine that night, I began to see things his way. Rules are often too rigid; and can be bent for the greater good. Sure, it would be against the rules to accept anything given to me by an offender, but… But the book had to be read; the world deserved it. In the end, I smuggled his writing out of the prison every Tuesday amongst my own papers. Of course, I was never checked. I suppose my innocent face saw to that…

For the next few months, I became little more than a glorified secretary, transferring his words to the laptop. Once the book was complete, I aimed high with it. Eventually, it was accepted by the same large publishing stable that counted Joel on their list of writers. On publication, it was a glorious, unreserved success, both critically and amongst the book-buying public. After the months of slow-burn toil, my life became a fairytale. When my first royalty cheque arrived, I nearly fell over. It was more money than I’d earned in seven years of work. Next came the invitations to the inevitable end of year award shows, and then the prizes, the audio recordings and the signing tours.

It was as I stepped back through my front door after a signing tour in America that I received the phone call which shattered all of my illusions. Still clutching the duty free rum I’d been supping in the taxi from the airport, I reached for the house phone and cradled it between my ear and my shoulder, absently wondering where all of my glasses were.

‘Yes?’ I slurred, my voice disgustingly thick with drink.

‘Is that Janet?’ responded Charles, my agent.

‘You know very well it’s Janet…’ I said, depositing the bottle of rum on the counter in order that I could click the phone onto loud-speaker while I had a proper search for the glasses.

‘Is that Janet?’ he repeated, and finally I got it through my thick skull that there was something seriously wrong.

‘What’s wrong, Charles?’

‘Do you know Susan Temple?’ he asked, before making this strange sobbing noise down the phone.

‘Well… no,’ I said. I couldn’t even rack my brains as I’d drunk so much. It did sound like a name I should have known, but I couldn’t place it.

‘You sure?’

‘I might have heard the name at some point.’ I decided, vaguely. ‘Why? Who is she?’

‘Susan Temple is the mother of Janey Temple… remember her?’

Suddenly, I knew where I knew the name from…

‘Susan was found dead tonight; an overdose. When the police found her, the only clue they could discover was the fact that she was clutching your book…’

I could barely speak.

‘There were sections underlined, apparently’ continued Charles. ‘The police think that she might have thought of the words as some kind of message… but then again, she was still crazy with grief after what that monster did to her daughter.’

‘What monster?’ I asked. The room was spinning. I felt as though I was being sucked into a vortex from which I could never return. I don’t want to know, I don’t want to know, chanted that voice in my head.

‘Frank Croker,’ said Charles, driving a dagger into my heart with his very words. Then he paused, ‘Janet, is there something you’d like to tell me about your book?’

Photo Credit: mnomono at Flickr

A.J Kirby (or Andy to his friends) started to write seriously after just losing out on winning a cash prize on a TV game show, despite being told the answers beforehand… Writing fiction and suspending a skint reality is his stock in trade now, and he’s lucky enough to have been featured in a wide number of publications, including anthologies (Legend Press's Eight Rooms, Nemonymous 8: Cone Zero & Nemonymous 9: Cern Zoo from Megazanthus Press, Graveside Tales' Fried: Fast Food Slow Deaths) print magazines (Sein und Werden, Skrev Press, and Champagne Shivers) and webzines (NVF, Pumpkin magazine, Underground).

Andy lives in Leeds, UK with his girlfriend Heidi. To find out more, visit his website.