The prisoner in the bed next door

The guy was in a worse situation than me

Even in my feverish and befuddled state, I could work out that the guy in the adjacent bed was in a worse situation than me.

It was night two or three of my stay in hospital, I can’t remember exactly. I was in to sort out my pneumonia, which was a by-product of the cancer I was diagnosed with many years before.

I was on the heart ward, as there were no beds in oncology, my home from home. I would get there after three nights of being shunted around the hospital. All around, pallid and unhealthy looking men came and went from their operations.

My neighbor was chained to the bed and attached to two police guards. He was a good-looking chap, dark-haired and well-spoken from what I could hear through the curtain that separated us.

One guard was an ageing bruiser with grey hair and a stocky frame, ready I assumed to wrestle down any escaping convict with maximum force. The other was a delicate-looking woman in her thirties.

They announced their arrival with a clattering of unwinding chains, like a boat being launched off a ramp, then further noise as they fastened him to the bed and each other. It was as though Magwitch, the convict from Dickens’s Great Expectations, had clanked and clattered his way into hospital.

“I’m not going to run, I’ve got too much to lose,” the prisoner said, his manner charming, even cajoling. He spent a lot of time talking about his loyal girlfriend on the outside.

“This bed is total luxury,” he said of the skimpy hospital mattress. “It’s so much better than prison. I mustn’t get used it, take me back as quickly as you can.”

Whatever he had done, it seemed unlikely that he had murdered anyone. Drugs, I speculated, maybe coke that that ruined his heart. I listened, fascinated, to him explain how drugs were shipped in with drones, how it was widely assumed the prison governor was on the take, how the jail was filling up with “stabbers” – teenage murderers from the London suburbs, killing their own kind.

I drifted off, and when I woke, he, his guards and his chains had gone.

I did see the prisoner once more before I was moved on. It was after his surgery and he was spread-eagled on the bed, unconscious, a big bandage on his chest. His guards were still next to the bed, but they had released the chains.

He had at last found freedom of sorts.

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