He paced the length of the dark cell, from window to steel door and back again. Orange light filtered in through the concrete pillars barring the window. The lights from the exercise yard kept total blackness at bay as the lights in the cells had been switched off for the night by a screw.
He was a blanket man, so called because of the form of protest he had joined the previous year, 1977; just shortly after his 20th birthday. The protest had come about as a result of the British attempt at labelling Republican prisoners as criminals. After their prison sentence was handed down by a judge in a Belfast court, prisoners were transported to the H Blocks where they refused to wear the prison uniform and conform to prison rules and regulations. They were forced to remove their clothes and were beaten in an effort to break them. When this failed they were given only two blankets and a blue towel and these they used to cover their naked bodies after the cell doors were slammed shut by a gloating screw.
Fourteen long months had since passed and the protest had escalated because of the brutality of the screws. The prisoners had wrecked their cells and smeared the walls with their own excrement. These desperate actions didn’t stop the brutal beatings, they had made things worse. He was now in a cell on his own, which was a rare occurrence, as prisoners were normally put into the tiny cells of the H Blocks in pairs. This meant that, in his enclosed world, he had more room to move around in than the others. He paced it like an animal in a cage. His only bed, a sponge mattress, was propped up against the wall.
His mind weighted heavily on the thoughts of what would certainly happen the following day. Hate-filled screws would drag them from their cells and then brutally beat them across the block to a clean wing, so that the cleaning crews could remove the excrement from the cell walls in the wing he was now in. It was the winter of 1978 and the bitter cold was barely kept at bay by the heating pipes which ran under his cell window down near the concrete floor, so he had wrapped his other blanket over his shoulders. He could hear a few of his comrades speaking in hushed tones to each other across the wing or from cell to cell. It was getting late and most had fallen into a nightmarish sleep. A few more lengths of the cell and he would soon join them. He turned one last time and headed in the direction of the cell door.
The Blanket Man’s dark world lit up in bright dazzling sunlight, as if someone had just flicked on a switch. He spun on his heels. The wall at the cell window was no longer there. Night had become day and winter had become summer. Fear gripped his entire body and squeezed tightly but after a brief hesitation he began to put one foot in front of the other and move towards the unknown. He had nowhere to run to so he needed to confront whatever was happening sooner rather than later. He realised that the wire fence which separated the line of cells on this side of the wing from the exercise yard was gone and so was the exercise yard. There were no barred wire topped barriers blocking his view, nor watchtowers with bored guards manning them. He called out to those in the cells next to his, asking frantically if they were seeing what he was seeing. He got no reply and after several more attempts he gave up trying to rouse them, for this was surely a dream.
He moved out from his cell and stepped into the world of this dream. A dream in which the H Blocks and the high concrete walls no longer acted as barriers to freedom. He looked along the wing of the H Block he had emerged from and although it was still there it had been weathered by time and was heavily stained by green algae. For the first time since just before a judge had handed down his sentence he could feel the warmth of the sun on his body, so he turned and flung the blanket which covered his shoulders back into the cell. He then began to walk across tarmac towards a fence in the distance. He could see buildings and green areas where once the other H Blocks and the high wall separating them from the Cages had been. His bare feet had become hardened to months of pacing a concrete cell and he quickened his step, worried that he might wake before he got free of this hellish place.
The gate was open when he reached it and beyond it there was a road. He crossed it quickly and with difficulty managed to climb a fence into a field. His blanket was a hindrance but without it he was naked. He didn’t want to take the risk of walking the road so he decided to keep to the fields. The grass under his feet felt like a carpet and he drank in the air which no longer tasted of bitterness and hatred. The smell of freedom had replaced the smell of the excrement on his cell walls and the rotting food in the corner nearest the door. Birdsong was a wondrous thing now that he could see them in their natural habitat and not outside the bars of his window.
His way was eventually blocked by a narrow river. The sound it made as it rippled by, with the sunshine dancing on the surface, was like music to his ears. He took it all in and then decided to turn right and follow this river to wherever it might lead him. Further along the river he came to a spot where trees were clumped together overhanging the riverbank. He paused there in the shade to take in a road which crossed a bridge just up ahead. It was busy with traffic speeding by in both directions. He had no other choice, if he wanted to continue on his way, but to risk crossing that bridge, so he headed towards it.
He managed, with some difficulty, to scramble up the bank through heavy foliage and onto a footpath at the side of the road. The passing cars and other vehicles slowed or even braked hard, almost causing accidents, when the occupants saw him. Horns honked at him in bemusement and he realised that his appearance was causing laughter rather than shock. They clearly thought that he was crazy. He decided to play along with being crazy so he sauntered across the bridge and gave the occasional wave to the audience speeding past. He was more taken aback by the vehicles themselves than the occupants. They were more modern in appearance than he had expected, even though he hadn’t seen cars or vans in over sixteen months, as he hadn’t even seen a TV in all that time. Had the outside world changed that much? He wondered. Then again most of the H Blocks had simply disappeared, so what kind of world was he now wandering through?
He soon spotted a pub up ahead and waited until the volume of traffic eased up before attempting to cross the road to get to it. It was more like a large house than a pub but a pub it was, so he approached the front door. There he hesitated, wondering should he dare venture inside. He hoped that someone with Republican leanings might be able to help him. The door was flung open from the inside and a gangly young man almost knocked him over. He took one look at the Blanket Man then turned on his heels and headed back into the bar again. He was clearly going to announce his arrival so the Blanket Man decided to follow him in.
“Wait till yous sees this eejit folks!”
The people inside had clearly seen him and the look on their faces told the Blanket Man that he was a sight to behold. Not that he hadn’t already known that. Here he was, standing before them with matted long hair and a beard, looking like a tramp wrapped in a filthy blanket. He was skin and bone with sunken eyes. What would he say to them?
As he pondered over what he would do next he noticed that some of the customers were holding up thin rectangular objects which began to flash like cameras as they pointed them in his direction.
“He’s a drunk and somebody’s gone and stolen his clothes!”, called out someone.
“Who’d steal the clothes off a drunk?” The question came from elsewhere in the bar.
“Another drunk?”, wondered someone else aloud.
“I’m not a drunk, I haven’t tasted a drop of alcohol in over two years!”, answered the Blanket Man in a subdued tone of voice.
“He’s off it then!”
“He looks like one of them blanket men from years ago.”
Everyone went silent and turned to the speaker with incredulous looks on their faces.
That’s it! They’re making a film in the old prison and some smart ass sent your boyo in here to see how we’d react!”
“The smell that’s coming off him’s no acting, I can tell you that!”
“It’s one of those hidden camera tricks, I bet Micky’s in on it. Are you in on it Micky?”
The customers turned to the barman for an answer. He was collecting empty glasses and he swore back at them before adding that the only cameras in that bar were the security cameras.
“That’s how they’re doing it then!”
Micky the barman swore again and lifted another glass from another table.
The Blanket Man noticed the large, very flat TV on the wall. There was horse racing on it. He had never seen a TV so thin in his entire life. It was like a framed picture only the images were moving. Then he noticed a grey-haired man sitting alone at a table up in the far corner of the bar. This man was watching him intently. There was a look of sadness in the man’s eyes. The Blanket Man thought there was something about the man that he recognised but he couldn’t be sure what it was. The man nodded to Micky the barman as if he wanted something. Micky turned and looked at the Blanket Man, took the money the man handed him and walked behind the bar, sitting the used glasses on the counter.
“That fellow told me to give you a pint,” he said. Then without asking what he wanted to drink Micky poured him a pint of lager and set it in front of him.
The Blanket Man found it strange that he wasn’t asked what he drank but it was correct anyway, although he hadn’t tasted lager in a long while. He turned and held the pint up to the grey-haired man as a form of thanks but the man had left his seat and the barely touched pint which sat in front of him.
“Where’s has he gone to?” Asked the Blanket Man.
“The toilet more than likely, but I don’t know why, as he’s barely touched his own pint since he came in earlier.”
“What’s his name?”
“I don’t know, never seen him before in my life,” replied Micky, as he lifted a long plastic object with buttons from the counter. “Aren’t you a recovering alcoholic any ways lad?”, he asked, as the Blanket Man lifted the pint to taste it.
“I didn’t say I was. I only said that I hadn’t tasted a drop in over two years.” He sipped the pint, then gulped more down. It tasted great but his head was light and he swayed on his feet a little. This brought howls of laughter from the locals. The Blanket Man thought that this crazy dream would make a great story to tell out the side of his cell door the following night, after the wing shift. It would lift the lad’s spirits.
Micky pressed a button on the long plastic object and the TV began flicking between channels. The Blanket Man choked on a mouthful of lager when he saw this, drawing more laughter from the locals who were now enjoying the show unfolding in front of them. Then he realised that there were no knobs on this TV and that it was controlled by that thing in Micky’s hand.
The local news came on the screen. This now caught the Blanket Man’s interest. Two men in suits who he instantly recognised appeared on the screen, one had a tea cup in his hand. They were engaged in friendly conversation while others stood in the background smiling. The newsreader gave details about the meeting but the Blanket Man only took in the part about the leader of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, meeting Prince Charles. He stared up at the TV in total shock. Gerry Adams and Prince Charles had aged quite a bit but what the hell was going on?, he wondered.
Micky the barman saw the look of disbelief on his face and asked him was he OK. “Has that pint gone to your head lad? You look as if you’re about to throw up. You’d better not.”
“Gerry Adams meeting with Prince Charles. What the hell’s going on?” He was still transfixed on what was unfolding before his eyes on the TV.
Laughter erupted yet again in the bar.
“I’m telling yous, this boy’s winding us all up,” shouted someone. “He’s been sent in here to do just that.” The speaker stood up and looked around, seemingly for the hidden camera. “Someone in here’s filming this on their phone.”
“We know everyone in here,” added another. The speaker then looked up to the corner where the grey-haired man had been. He still hadn’t returned to his pint. “It has to be that boyo who was sitting over there, your man seemed to know him.”
The Blanket Man looked in that direction as well. He had hoped that the man might be able to help, given that he had shown a sympathetic interest in him. He then looked towards the toilets but there was no sign of him coming back again.
Micky the barman noticed that the Blanket Man was genuinely confused. He leaned over and asked him again was he going to be sick. He quickly stepped back having breathed in the stench coming from his body. “I’m telling you lad, this joke is going a bit too far now.”
“How did that come about?” Asked the Blanket Man looking back up at the TV. The topic of the news had by then changed.
“Sinn Féin meeting the royals?” Asked Micky the barman. “You know fine rightly that’s a common occurrence now. It happens most times they pay a visit to Ireland, north or south.”
“They’ve even raised a glass or two to the Queen herself,” called out someone.
Laughter erupted in the bar again.
“They’ve been sitting up there in Stormont with the DUP in government too long. It must be well over ten years now.” This was another man sitting at the corner of the bar counter. he was clearly mocking the Blanket Man, who took a few steps towards him. The man winched and looked towards Micky the barman.
Micky the barman told him to stop right there, which the Blanket Man did. “In government… up in Stormont?” He was staring straight through the man as he spoke.
“That’s what I said, didn’t I?” Came the reply.
No, no, no, thought the Blanket Man. We’re going to smash Stormont. That can’t be true. “What about the socialist republic?” He had inadvertently said this aloud.
“The socialist republic.” Called out someone else from one of the groups sitting at the tables. “Aren’t Sinn Féin the richest party in Ireland? What would they be wanting with a socialist republic?”
The laughter was now hammering into his head and he really did feel like throwing up. The Blanket Man turned and headed straight for the door of the bar. He had to get out of this place. As he pulled the door open he heard someone calling out to Micky the barman above the laughing.
“Hey Micky, I think that boyo really is crazy. You need to phone the police.”
When he went outside of the bar he noticed that the sky was overcast and that there was a sharp nip in the air. He crossed the road not really knowing where he would go to from there. If this was the future then it wasn’t the future that he had envisaged and he wanted no part of it. He decided to retrace his steps as he worked out the tangled mess that his thoughts had become. Instead of going back along the river he took a more direct route across the fields to the prison.
He had no other choice but to go back. There was no one he could turn to. His parents would be very old or even dead. The thought depressed him. How could he simply turn up at the door of his family not having aged a day? This new found freedom had become more of a prison than the one he had escaped from. He could see that prison just beyond the field he was moving across. He had to escape this nightmare, for that is what it surely was, a nightmare.
Ominous dark clouds were gathering overhead. The rate at which they were moving across the sky was unnatural. It was as if he could see inside his own depressed mind. He tried to get over the barbed wire fence which separated the field from the road. The blanket round his waist was a hindrance so he took it off, threw it across the wire and climbed over it.
As he was putting the blanket back around his waist the Blanket Man noticed a police car some way up the road moving towards him slowly. Blue lights began to flash. Desperation was really setting in now, he simply could not get arrested. He had to get back to his cell, so he tore the blanket off his waist again and ran across the road naked. He still clung to the blanket as he ran. He heard the roar of the police car as it came tearing down the road, then the screeching of tires as it turned sharply in through the open gate.
Darkness was descending like a great shadow across this nightmarish world. He took a quick look over his shoulder and saw that two policemen, who had got out of the car, were standing looking around in all directions. It was as if they could no longer see him. His chest was pounding, there was a sharp pain in his side and he was getting cramps in his legs so he eased up a little.
It was at this point he noticed that the H Blocks were rematerialising in the gloom, like ghostly shapes all around him. The orange lights were dim, as if viewed through a haze. A corrugated iron fence barred his way but he could see through it as if it were transparent and he could see the wing of the block he had been in, as well as the hole in his cell wall. He didn’t stop to think but kept running towards the fence and then passed through it as if it had been formed from grey smoke.
The Blanket Man kept going until he had crossed the exercise yard, went through the hole in the wall and was back in his cell again. He drew up at the cell door and took time to get his breath back. Then he turned around and saw that the wall with the barred window was back where it had been since the day it was set in place. He didn’t bother to go to the window and look outside because the orange light was enough proof that he was back in this all too familiar hell again. Totally exhausted he flipped the mattress down onto the floor, lifted the two blankets and lay down on it before wrapping them around himself.
He was awakened by the sound of keys rattling in the cell doors further down the wing and the clank of the breakfast trolley as it was pushed up the corridor. He turned on his side, the grey skies were a foreboding of the day which lay ahead. His mind began to go over the dream he had during the night, he could remember so much about it that he wondered how it could possibly be a dream. The breakfast trolley was almost at his cell door so he rose to his feet. They were painful and he almost had to limp towards the door. What had caused this pain? He wondered. Surely not? It was a dream. A key rattled in his cell door and a dour-faced screw stared at him with hatred in his eyes, before stepping aside to let him get what passed for a breakfast. As he held his plastic mug under the tea urn the orderly, who wasn’t the worst of them, leant close to him.
“There’s been some excitement last night,” He whispered. “The guards in the watchtowers saw a shadowy figure moving quickly through the prison. It was running and actually went right through a fence, they say. Apparently it disappeared through the wall of one of these here cells.”
The Blanket Man looked at him in shock and stepped back spilling some of his tea on the floor of the corridor. The screw was enraged. Before he could say anything the orderly continued, wanting desperately to finish his story.
“They’re saying it was the ghost of Harvey. That World War 2 pilot who haunts the jail.”
“Move!” Ordered the screw and the orderly scuttled off to wait outside the next cell with the trolley.
“I’ll be seeing you again shortly for the fun and games. Enjoy your breakfast you Fenian bastard.”
The cell door slammed shut and the screw’s key rattled in the lock. The Blanket Man turned and looked towards the cell window as rain poured down outside.
That was no ghost. It was me, fleeing from my own nightmare. But how could they possibly have seen that?
He told no one about his strange dream for he knew that the others would laugh at him and he’d face endless ridicule.
The moral of the story is, would we have endured so much if we had some way of knowing how it would eventually turn out? Most definitely not.
Thomas Dixie Elliot is a Derry artist and a former H Block Blanketman.
Follow Dixie Elliot on Twitter @IsMise_Dixie