A lot of people are asking me what my story is. My story of prison is nearly over but my story of how I got there is summed up in a short story – what I wrote – a few years ago for a collaboration book called ‘Postcards from…’ I’ll add it on at the end and you can have a little peruse.
This little stint out has been great. It’s been much easier, less panicky and I never felt seasick once. I had to explain this to my Mum on Sunday when she asked me if I wanted to take the ferry, the scenic route home from Portaferry. I told my lovely Mum that each and every time I came home I felt seasick. My wee Mum looked quite horrified and hurt, as Mums do, because she wanted to take the pain away. It was like agoraphobia in claustrophobic space and claustrophobia in an agoraphobic space resulting in much palpitations and sips of water and all the things that go with that. I have spoken to several ex-cons who tell me this is a natural process. This natural process arrived around 20.00 last night and I thought oh shit here we go again. I received a few tweets, had a conversation with a Celtic fan, which is in itself a major achievement for me (only joking Allan) and had a phone call from a lovely girl from Stockport who’s just as excited about what we do as I am.
These interactions help and they ease the transition but the fear is always lurking. Fear is the key, intimidation is the weapon and I have to ask myself, and often have, “if we are all so ‘vulnerable’ why are we treated so badly and why is this seasickness, anxiety/post traumatic stress disorder a natural process?” Is this not a complete contradiction of the word ‘care’.
I had breakfast with an old dear prison friend yesterday morning and he told me about chopping his logs for fire wood. We roared with laughter when he said he’d chopped enough wood in two weeks to keep him and his village for this winter and the next. Then I listen to the clichés and ‘sure your nearly there’ and ‘upward and onward’ and ‘it’s all behind you.’ No it bloody well is not. This institutional bullying has left a deep resentment in me that i never had before. The amount of guys who are leaving prisons with pure unadulterated hatred in their hearts is quite frightening. Something they have all said they never had before.
Is it not the ‘duty’ of a prison sentence, in law, to provide the prisoner with the ability to return to society and be a purposeful part of it and no prisoner should leave prison worse than they went in – mentally or physically. Personally, on a physical level I’ve stopped all vices but abused myself with death by chocolate over the years but the ‘mental’ damage will be much harder to shake.
I’m going to go and prepare myself for volunteering to go and be abused for another two weeks. Who in their right mind does this. I say it every time as soon as I walk through that gate the real me gets hidden and the game face is back on. How can you risk assess a mask of survival?
A Postcard from Cape Town
by Michael Irwin
“One day I’m gonna stand on top of that mountain!” It’s cold, dark and depressing outside. I’ve just been reading Wilbur Smith’s Rage. My bedroom windows vibrate. The thump of another bomb exploding in the centre of Belfast. The harsh reality of life, a feeling of fear and foreboding in the pit of my stomach. Twenty five years later I leave the cable car with a similar type of feeling in my stomach, only this time it’s a rush of adrenalin, anticipation and excitement. I walk up the steps carved out of the dark grey rock, eyes closed, with my girlfriend trailing behind me. My girlfriend moans about her hair blowing around, her hat not being able to stay on because of the wind. I wish I’d left her behind; I will as soon as I get my driving licence. She decides she doesn’t want to go any further so I suggest she goes and gets a cup of coffee in the café which is very well signposted. “Oh, won’t you come and show me the way? I’ll be O.K. when I get there.” Like I’ve been here before! Doesn’t she get it? To keep the peace I accompany to her to the café and get her a seat. “Off you go and do what you have to,” she says. So’ I head off back to the steps wishing I could drive, wishing I didn’t have this beautiful White South African goddess for a girlfriend and feeling even more excited as I neared the top of the steps. A twelve year old Belfast promise made in my bedroom is about to come true I walk up the gradual incline and I can see the wall about 20ft in front of me. I close my eyes again and slowly make my way towards the wall. How did I get here? How did my life lead me to this place and this time? Was it fate or is there a greater picture that I’m not aware of? I touch the wall and open my eyes. The vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean as it joins the Indian Ocean on the horizon, in a slightly darker haze of blue. Next stop – the South Pole Oh My God!
I don’t actually believe in God but at moments like this it is the only phrase that I can think of. The South Africans have one word that translates into the same thing, Yessus! My heart pounds; my breath unloads itself into the enormity of the sea space in front of me. The cliché of a breathtaking place being made physically real. I sit on the wall looking out to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent many years of his life as a prisoner of the apartheid era. The claustrophobic tiny seaman’s larder in the 1500s. I think of the freedom I have now and how lucky I am to be alive. I can’t help but wonder how a wee boy from Belfast ended up here, on top of Table Mountain in South Africa. At that moment I decided that when I get back to London I’ll pack up my stuff and come back to South Africa only, to live!
I arrived back in Kapstaad (Cape Town) about a year later without the girlfriend and with a driving license. Myself and a friend had driven the 12 hours from Johannesburg, one week after I had passed my test (I actually bought a car on the Saturday, passed my test on the Monday and drove down here on the Friday). Like life – the great adventure – to see more of Africa in one day than most Africans see in a lifetime. Johannesburg and its surrounding areas are flat, brown and dirty compared to the lush, mountainous shades of green in Kapstaad. I moved into a guest house at the back of the property owned by the ex dean of Cape Town University. On the second day of my arrival I’m invited by the ex-dean to join her and some friends for lunch, the following day. That same morning I’d been for a game of golf and the 19th hole was beckoning. When I ordered a coke the rest of my four ball where a bit shocked and wanted to know why I was being so rude and un-Irish. I told them “I had to fly” and – weirdly enough – that’s exactly what did happen for ‘Lunch’ was at The Stellenbosch Flying Club and – afterwards – there was a 2hr flight in a Piper Cherokee over the Franchoek Valley, Swellendam and the surrounding area of Kapstaad. At one point I could see the golf Club where I’d played that morning and where I later became a member.
What a week that was! I can look back and recall how I felt at the time. I was free, thousands of miles from home and away from the influence and restraints of previous friends or family. Nobody knew me, I was free to become whoever I wanted to be, free to reinvent myself and start a new life for myself and heavens forbid, be honest to myself? I can now be honest and say that all I really wanted was to fall in love, settle down and live a comfortable life in the sun.” I’d left Northern Ireland when I was eighteen, lived in Greece for a while, then to London where I’d spent 15 years. I now had the perfect opportunity to “Start Again” – to meet new people and to try and be a better person.
“Where did it all go wrong?” Someone asked George Best that question in a hotel room in Dublin; at the time Besty had just won £25,000 in the Casino and Miss World was ‘slipping into something more comfortable’ in the bathroom! Cape Town – like football for Best – offered everything and nothing and it’s sometimes hard to know the difference. I started to play golf three or four times a week which was inevitably followed by the 19th hole, dinners, pubs and clubs till the wee hours of the morning. I had a different girl every week, sometimes every night. Life was hedonistic and full of new people experiences, scenery and culture. More friends than I could remember. My phone always ringing. Different friends in different social groups – some where ordinary run-of-the-mill folk, just enjoying life – some – like myself – living life a bit like a Rock Star! Some bankers, business men with a lot of clout and a lot of collateral. Some gangsters with even more clout and even more collateral. As I was an ex publican from Belfast who lived in London, I’d no problem fitting in.
That’s when I met my friend Charlie (Cocaine) one Saturday night at a club in Kapstaad. I was absolutely exhausted, I’d been playing golf that morning and I’d been at the pub all day watching the football and the rugby. Another so called mate at the time said “bloody hell Mick you looked fucked. How’re you gonna drive home?” Meet my friend Charlie he’ll give you a lift I thought. Did he ever. What a friend and he never took the same amount of money as his twin brother had in London. I met Charlie every Friday and Saturday, and together we became even more free, more full of energy and more popular than ever. We started to hook up regularly after I played golf. Sometimes he’d even give me a shout before I went to play golf. Before I knew it Charlie was a constant Kapstaad companion. I can’t say I wasn’t a willing participant, that I wasn’t aware of the consequences. I just didn’t think getting hooked would happen to me. Soon I didn’t want to stop and – after a while – I just didn’t care. I started to see the seedier side of Kapstaad, the underbelly. My gangster mates had me doing some seriously dodgy and dangerous stuff. Eventually I carried a gun with me at all times, my car recognised in most of the bad areas near to where I lived. The point is I was one of the very few ‘white guys’ who could go into black areas without fear of death.
I suppose for me, Cape Town is like a drug. On the surface everything looks cool and carefree although underneath there is something sinister lurking. I don’t know if it’s because of the History of Africa, the Apartheid era or the huge gap between wealth and poverty, but ‘money’ is foremost in people’s minds. People in Cape Town are driven by a need to make money which in many cases leads to people simply taking from others. Tourism is one of the prime sources of income in Cape Town; so whilst it seems like everyone is kind, friendly and caring all they are really interested in is where the next buck is coming from. I recall one particularly beautiful morning. I was looking out over False Bay at the Whales breaching in the distance; it was a picture of tranquillity. I cracked open a beer and walked into the living room where four of my friends friends where sitting with AK47s on their laps. I felt sick and it was then that I realised how much Cape Town is a contradiction, a seductress who will leave you crumpled and broken, if you let her.
I wanted out of this lifestyle and I wanted to get my life back on track. I made a deal to deliver a suitcase from the Caribbean to the U.K. I’m now back in Northern Ireland sitting looking at a much smaller version of Table Mountain, it’s called Benevenagh, just outside Londonderry. Every time I look at Benevenagh I smile, because I stood on top of the Real Table topped mountain and I cherish the memories, the fun and the laughter before I met Charlie.