After leading a life of crime on the streets of South Kilburn, the narrator has to survive in the harsh environment of Feltham jail. Author Gabriel Krauze explains: “Often the truth is disturbing and ugly. Everything in this story was experienced by me in one way or another—otherwise I wouldn’t be able to tell it. It’s a world full of untold stories, a reality that most people only catch a glimpse of in the news and on TV, but which is lived by many on the edge of society’s gaze. This is the life I chose”
And jump out the whip and I’m hitting the pavement and it’s this moment—when you jump out of the car and it’s too late to go back—when you know that you’re definitely gonna do it now, even though the way the adrenaline bursts through your body makes you wish for a second that you weren’t here. And now we’re creeping up the street, she’s too far ahead of us, we got the timing wrong but we can’t run to catch up because that will alert her and she’ll turn around, so we’re creeping fast. The bally is hugging my face tight and I’ve also pulled my hood over it and I feel the adrenaline explode in the pit of my chest like a dying star and it’s like my entire body has turned into the pumping of my heart.
And I’m creeping up fast to get behind her and Gotti is right there beside me and she hasn’t heard us, not the way we’re moving, low to the ground, black cotton Nike tracksuits on so there’s no sound of clothes rustling, Nike trainers silent on the pavement. And for a few heartbeats I notice how everything on the street seems like someone’s idea of a peaceful life, sun floating overhead, bulging in the sky’s belly, washing the street below in a brightness that breaks over everything; neat rows of perfect houses, polished green bushes lining the pavement, the cool metal smell of morning, and now the woman pushes a gate open and turns off the street and she’s walking up a small path to her front door.
And we’ve fucked up the timing but we can still get her on her doorstep so we start running, still tryna be stealthy but now we really have to be quick before we lose her and we turn through the little gate—she’s almost at the door, digging into her handbag for the house key—and we run up the path and then we’re right there behind her, I can reach out and touch her hair, I can smell shampoo and softness and then expensive perfume which almost makes me feel sick, and in this moment everything I’ve ever known falls away, memory, past, future, and then the street, the morning and everything else around us disappears as if I’m forgetting the world and there is only Now, crystal sharp, on the doorstep. And before I can get my arms locked around her neck to put her to sleep, she turns around.
And she screams. She sees me—or just my eyes and a bit of mouth through three holes in the black bally I’m wearing—as if realising a nightmare she didn’t know she was in and we know it’s all scatty now, fuck it, no chance of this being silent and unnoticed so I grab her anyway, my arm pushing into her throat as I turn her around and hold her tight against my chest and Gotti is trying to pop the Cartier off her wrist but he can’t for some reason, he’s proper straining and the metal is biting into her wrist and she’s screaming just take it just take it and now the pounding in my heart and belly is fully gone because we’re actually doing it, nothing else exists in this moment, everything is still and calm inside me and I say stop fucking struggling in her ear but Gotti can’t rip the watch off even though it’s like she’s giving him her wrist and I can see he’s like whatdafuck because it’s never happened before that he couldn’t pop someone’s watch off—and this one has diamonds going all round the bezel so we really want it, like it’s easily worth ten fifteen bags.
[su_pullquote]"I turn and run with the handbag, down the path, out the gate, but the getaway whip isn't there, it's already moving slow down the road"[/su_pullquote]
And I think fuck it because she’s already screaming, no point tryna put her to sleep now, might as well help Gotti. The front door—solid white with a brass knocker—opens and there’s a boy standing there, about seventeen eighteen years old and he just stares at us like frozen and says Mum and I look at him, our eyes meet and in his eyes and also over his shoulder behind him I can see a different life to my own, something better maybe, something without so many sharp edges and broken things. And we’re still tryna tear the watch off and suddenly Gotti turns round and bangs the woman’s son in the face onetime and the boy drops and Gotti slams the door shut and we’re alone with her again. And I clock she’s got a big diamond ring on her wedding finger and I try to pull it off but it’s not moving, the skin all bunches up and it hurts her and I can’t twist it off because she has a wedding band on the same finger in front of the diamond ring, basically blocking it. So I snap her finger back, it folds straight over so the tip touches her wrist in one go and it’s strange because I always thought that if you break someone’s finger you’ll actually feel the bones break, hear it even, but I don’t feel anything at all, it’s like folding paper, as if the finger was naturally supposed to bend back like that and she’s screaming to me take it just take it but I can’t, in fact within seconds I can see the break begin to swell up the base of her finger and now I know I’m definitely not getting the ring off. And the door opens again and there’s a man standing there in a red sweater and we know it’s all fucked now, we have to get away but we’re still hoping we can at least cut out with something to show for our efforts and the man grabs his wife around her waist and pulls her towards him, drags her into the doorway while Gotti’s like Snoopz come, fuck this, we need to cut blood and he’s turning away from the door ready to duss back to the whip which is waiting in the middle of the road and in my head I’m like fuck dat I’m not leaving with nothing. And the man drags his wife into the house and as he does this he’s pulling the door shut and I can see their entrance hall is carpeted beige all thick and soft like the kind of carpet that holds the heat of a resting sunbeam so you actually wanna lie down and fall asleep on it and mad quick I reach through the door as it’s closing and manage to grab the woman by her wrist and I pull her arm out just as the door is slamming shut and the man slams the front door hard on his wife’s arm and I hear her scream. Gotti turns and runs down the path to the gate and I see through the slightly open door that the woman’s dropped her handbag so I bend down and grab it quicktime and the door opens fully again and the man has a cricket bat which he swings at me but I’m already ducking down so it misses my head even though I feel the rush of air against my bally as it swipes past. I turn and run with the handbag, down the path, out the gate, but the getaway whip isn’t there, it’s already moving slow down the road, one of the back doors is wide open and Gotti is shouting for me to get in and the man is running after me waving the cricket bat above his head roaring mad rage—no words just pure noise—and I’m running after the whip, inhaling the morning, glass needles of sunlight piercing through the sky and falling all around me and I’m not sure I’m gonna make it, like I can’t get level with the open passenger door, like nah this is so peak, it can’t end like this, it can’t. But then I do and I dive in head first onto the backseat and Gotti grabs onto me and—with my legs still sticking out—the car bursts forward down the road, Gotti pulls me in, reaches over me, slams the door shut and now Tyrell is driving us away.
We turn out of the street onto the main road and we’re talking to Tyrell like whatdafuck, man couldn’t get the belly fam, that was a mad ting, and I pull off my balaclava and Gotti pulls off his bally and it’s like coming up for air after diving into some deep ocean and staying down there for so long that you hadn’t realised you were drowning and Gotti says blood I don’t know whatdafuck happened but I couldn’t rip her watch off, I just couldn’t, I kept trying but it wouldn’t pop, and Tyrell says swear down fam? but he says it all flat and distant coz he’s focusing mad hard on getting us out of the area quicktime, tension creasing his face and turning it ashy yellow, but on a real he’s moving smart; not driving overly fast like it’s some bate getaway, just driving like he’s got somewhere he needs to be that morning. Plus the car looks right; nothing flashy, but at the same time not too battered or fucked up looking like it’s obviously some second-hand ting that’s gonna get burned out later.
As he drives back down the high road, past shops and the type of normal morning life that could be anywhere, a fed car comes screaming up the road on the other side, blue lights spinning off onto buildings and windows in pale slices that disintegrate in the morning brightness and me and Gotti slide off the backseat and lie down in the footwell because we know that police car was called for us. We lie there cramped up on the floor of the car, our legs pressing against each other, making sure it looks like there’s no one on the backseat, heads down next to dirt and dust and I can see the detail of the rubber foot mat, which suddenly becomes something significant, its shape, texture, colour, its—
And the fed car flies past us in the opposite direction on its way to the street we left just a minute ago and I’m surprised as well, because you always hear how police response times aren’t good enough and all that shit, but this was fast, I mean like the whole move itself couldn’t have lasted more than three minutes really, I guess the son or the husband called the feds straight away while we were still clamping up the woman tryna rip her shit off, and true it’s about ten in the morning, there’s no traffic round here and what we’ve done is kinda fucking—well, no wonder they came for us so fast. But they never even notice Tyrell, never even look in the direction of our car and we’re well down the high road now. We sit back up. We’re on our way back to the spot, we can be easy now, we’ve gotten away with it, they won’t get us now.
Right. Krauze. Do you want the good news first or the bad news?
The good news I say.
Well the good news is that you’re getting bail for the ABH he says, and I think calm, that’s the worst of it over now, I can get ready to go.
The bad news is, because there’s a warrant out for your arrest we’re going to hold you here tonight and then you’re going to Feltham Young Offenders Institution tomorrow morning.
Feltham. Fuck. And then I think oh well. Finally. HMP Feltham. Gang city and gladiator games. Everyone knows Feltham is greazy. Gotti told me about mandem getting their faces sliced on the wing when he was in Feltham. I remember he used the word chopped. Said he saw one yout chopping open a next yout’s face. Not Nice mentioned suttin about window warriors. Taz told me about the fights in the showers, how he had to cave a man’s head in coz if he didn’t the same woulda happened to him. Nowhere to run or hide, just face to face with fate. If you’re from London, it’s mad easy to meet your enemies there, depending on what gang, what ends, what dons you might have beef with. Well now I’m gonna find out what it’s really like. Fuck it. Knowledge is to be found on the edge of experience. As long as you don’t fall off the edge…
In the morning they put me on a Serco van. The sweatbox. You get locked in this cubicle which isn’t high enough to stand up in and there’s only enough room to sit down on the moulded plastic seat. No room to stretch your legs forward, no room to stretch your arms out, no room to move and the windows are so heavily tinted it turns the day into night. No room here for words. No space to describe anything.
The van drives to Willesden Magistrates’ Court to pick up some next prisoners. It gets there at midday which means I’ve spent over two hours in this box. My sweatshirt is stuck to my back. I get taken to a holding cell in the basement of the courthouse. Someone from the court comes and explains that I’m gonna get remanded in Feltham for two weeks and then brought back to Willesden Magistrates’ coz the warrant is connected to me not doing community service and not attending probation linked to a case I had for assaulting police. Two weeks. I just wanna get to Feltham now forreal, all this getting taken here, put there; it’s disorientating and tiring. Your face dries up and your belly churns but the food they bring to the holding cell is so shit—some microwaved nothing that seems to be one with the plastic container it’s in—that I don’t even eat it. Anyway, food won’t take away this feeling. I can hear next man getting put in the holding cells. More waiting, then taken out, handcuffed and put into cubicles on the Serco van. Early afternoon. The drive to Feltham takes another hour.
One moment I’m in Mile End, thinking about a lecture, zipping up my Avirex coz the wind’s tryna wrap me up, thinking about what Nietzsche said, thinking about smashing one peng Somali ting I drew at the bus stop the other day, thinking about doing the next eat with Gotti and Big D, thinking I want some fried chicken or no I want a chicken doner wrap with garlic and chilli sauce on the meat and lots of burger sauce on my chips. And the next moment I’m locked in this box, looking at my hands, making fists, wondering what Feltham’s gonna be like, am I gonna have to swing it out with anyone on my first night? As soon as I can tell it’s on, fuck a talking ting, I’m straight banging man in the face, even if I get fucked up afterwards. It’s like Gotti said, you gotta ride it out, you gotta soldier that shit. Otherwise you’ll come out damaged by the inability to be violent.
[su_pullquote]"In prison talk, doing bird means doing your time. When you get sentenced you get birded off. What a mad ting that every single wing in Feltham is named after a bird"[/su_pullquote]
We are basically all products of each moment in our lives, sometimes becoming things we never knew we could be. When I go pen I’m gonna have to fold up all these other parts of myself and stash them away in the caves of my being. Then again people say there are so many parts to you, all these different sides to a person —the side that plays the piano, the side that writes and wants to write more, the side that thinks about ancient aliens creating the human race, the side that wants to shank man up and rob the rich and do this gang ting—but it’s not really different sides or parts or pieces. It’s all just part of a whole. One thing. It’s like imagine a gigantic column; you can’t ever see all the way around it in one go, so people only ever get to see the side that’s in their immediate view.
Anyway, I’m here.
Her Majesty’s Prison Feltham. Dirty red bricks and barred windows that will never open. After the strip-search in reception—trousers off, boxers off, crouch, hold up your balls, cough—after getting booked in, after they take my clothes and I put on the prison-issue jeans and short-sleeve shirt with thin blue- and-white stripes going down it, after I pull the grey sweatshirt on top, after all that, I become prisoner TF6677 and get put on the induction wing with all the newcomers: a gang of tired faces, cardboard skin, hard stares and haunted eyes, anaesthetised emotions, expectations ripped out.
The wing is called Kingfisher. I have a cell to myself, up the stairs on the landing. They put everyone in cells on their own to avoid any beef on the first few nights. Blue metal doors. Yellow walls. Metal railings. Simple words. Scratches in metal. Scratches in walls. Names, dates, postcodes. 3 the mandem, Kofi Real Killa woz ere ’04, Fuck da feds, Pecknarm, Fuck OTF, Yung Steamer On Tour ’03, Bridge Mandem, LOM Love Of Money, free Elka, N15, SW9 Real Ridaz: traces of lives lived in vicious moments. The good news and the bad news. Ha. The desk sergeant really fucked me up with that one.
In my cell. A metal bed frame with green sheets on it and a hard pillow. On the wall above the bed someone has written NO LOVE GANG. Toilet in one corner. Sink. Desk. Need paper and pen. Breakfast pack when they wake us up at 7am: prison cornflakes and carton of long-life milk. Put it on the windowsill next to the metal air vent to try and keep it cool. Screws check on you to make sure you’re not sleeping during the day. If they catch you you get put on report. Lunch at 12pm. Dinner at 5pm. Prison food; I’m not gonna waste words on that shit. Fourteen hours from dinner to breakfast without food. Breakfast is such a minor ting that it’s basically nineteen hours without a proper meal. Every day. Twenty-three hours locked up in my cell. There’s something strange about this story like I can’t even tell it because no amount of words can describe what it’s really like. You can try and use evocative and complex words, try and be as detailed as possible but that just leads you further and further away from what it’s like, because really it’s all basic words, basic sensations that everyone can understand—cold, hard, empty, nothing—it’s those words’ limitations that sum it all up. And even all of this is a waste of words. Making it sound like more than it is because you’re using words to keep describing it when it’s all just deadout and there are thousands of other people going through the same process at that very moment.
Chatting to one brer from New Cross called Smiler on association. Live Every Day As Your Last tattooed on his neck. In my cell that night, I find the broken handle of a plastic toothbrush which someone started sharpening. I spend the night scraping it against the concrete floor until the job’s finished. Rip a piece of my bedsheet and wrap it tight round the bottom for grip. Next day when I go out on association, I have the shank between my cheeks. I walk a bit slower and don’t stretch my legs as much so that it doesn’t fall out. We stand in a small tarmac yard with red-brick walls and barbed wire looming over and smoke burn for fifteen minutes. Some of the youts spit bars. I just stand and watch and taste the air. One screw gives us a talk about bullying and how if anyone feels like they’re being bullied, they must report it to a screw so it can be investigated. Anyone with a bit of sense knows this would be the dumbest ting to do. If you report being bullied everyone will know you snitched and you’ll be getting moved to on the regs, whatever wing you go to. Every night I wash my boxers and socks in the sink in my cell with a bar of soap, then leave them to dry on this one hot pipe that runs through my cell. No one tells us anything about laundry or where to get clean garms.
In the showers during association, some youts from South are bunning a zoot. One tall white brer starts talking to me about some random shit while he dries himself with a towel—I’ve done trials for Arsenal he says out of nowher—and I can see he’s fully gone. One of the South youts asks me where you from cuz? He offers me the zoot. Nah I’m cool blood. Twenty minutes later we hear low animal screaming in a cell on the ground-floor level. It’s that white brer from the showers. Then banging like furniture getting broken and silence. A screw walks out of the cell and says wants to give it but can’t handle it when he gets some back the whiny cunt. I don’t see the white yout again.
I get pen and paper. Prison paper. Blue lines like the prison shirts. Number, Name, Wing; you have to fill it in if you’re writing a letter. I draw one brer in an AV, holding a 9 mill and a MAC-10, baggy jeans and Nike Air Maxes and a fitted cap pulled down over his face with evil eyes embroidered above the brim. In the background I draw South Killy blocks as I remember them and fed cars with lights flashing and I write by Snoopz TF6677 HMP Feltham 02/12/06 Loyalty 2 the Hood. I show Smiler the drawing and he says that’s sick cuz, do man a picture like that I beg, I wanna send it to my babymum.
The next morning I get moved off the induction wing with Smiler and couple next man to a wing called Mallard. Getting walked from one wing to the next, we go down brick corridors full of gloomy shadow with bits of light falling through bars, but it’s like the gloom blocks the light from coming anywhere near us. See next mandem with couple screws and they’re all watching and fuck looking away even though you can feel the tension come into your face, the nerves in your arms and legs beginning to twitch. You can tell who’s not shook coz they almost look like they’re enjoying themselves. They stare and their teeth show. Gates open. Keys rattle. Metal on metal. Now I’m on Mallard.
In prison talk, doing bird means doing your time. When you get sentenced you get birded off. What a mad ting that every single wing in Feltham is named after a bird. Kingfisher, Mallard, Wren, Raven, Osprey, Kestrel, Heron. Pisstake. I hear that Raven and Osprey are the greaziest wings where it kicks off every day. Bare murderers and lifers. Man are getting shanked up on the regs on dem wings deya says one brer I’m talking to. He wants to go to Raven coz his boys are there and he’s moving salty coz he’s with the newbies. All around the prison grounds are peacocks. Real talk. You see them through your cell window, showing off their feathers, unreal colours like the eyes of some mythical beast. You see them through the windows when you’re out on association. Sometimes you hear them cawing high and loud in the loneliness of night. Mad ting ah lie?
One night, voices shouting from cell to cell.
Oi number 20, come to your window blood.
What d’you mean what? I’ll break your fucking face blood, don’t get me mad.
Haha myman said allow it you know.
Other voices laughing.
Yo number 20, you still there?
Yo suck your mum.
Blood allow talking about my mum. My mum’s dead innit.
Suck your dead mum then.
Oh my days allow me.
Yo number 20 sing me a song.
I said sing me a fucking song pussyole, otherwise watch what happens when the doors open tomorrow.
Sing me happy birthday.
He starts singing.
Laughter echoing around the wing. Mandem banging on their cell doors.
Sing it properly blood.
I’m sitting on the stairs during association—forty-five minutes out of our cells every afternoon—chatting to Smiler and some next brer from South. Then I zone out of the conversation coz I start thinking about Gotti. True I’m glad he never got shift with me coz he woulda ended up going bin for way longer than me. I wonder what moves he’s doing. He better not hit that super belly without me.
Something happens around the pool table. One tall brer with mini dreads jumps over the table, grabs one next yout’s head and smashes it off the concrete edge surrounding a cell door. The brer crumples like a puppet that suddenly got its strings cut. Someone says rah, myman got moved to. Blood smears the cell door as he slides down against it. Some next yout kicks the brer in the face and pulls off his trainers, tucking them under his sweatshirt. The brer on the floor goes stiff and starts shaking. Then the screws are everywhere shouting GET BACK TO YOUR CELLS, siren going off, cell doors slamming and association is cut short.
In my cell I start thinking about uni. I’m meant to be handing in my main pieces of work for the end of the first term today and they don’t even know where I am. I think about the fuckery of how I got here. People like me who go from zero to one hundred real quick will always have to face consequences. Now I’m missing out on doing my final essays which I know will damage my chances of getting a First for my degree. Pissed. But more than that I miss the roads. Real talk I don’t feel no way about anything I’ve done so far. It’s easier to die than to live with regret. Sometimes I think it would be more painful to feel regret than it would be to get stabbed or shot.
Night presses its cold forehead against my window. I get a letter from Yinka. It’s been opened already and stamped HM Young Offenders Institution Remand Centre Received 5 Dec 2006. There’s no letter, just a passport photo of us together. It makes me smile and then I catch feelings so I put it away.
The next day, a screw comes to my door and tells me to get ready for a visit. It’s Mama and Capo. In the visiting room I don’t know what to say so I ask Mama to contact my advisor at uni and to tell her what’s happened with me. She looks around, says it’s not bad here at all and I say well you don’t get to see the bit where I have to watch out for getting stabbed in the showers and Capo says chill Snoopz chill. I’m bare happs to see him and it just makes me wanna get out of here more. Families huddle around their sons, talking in low voices. Girlfriends lean over tables to kiss their boyfriends. They grip each other’s hands. Some even have their children there.
As Mama and Capo leave, three screws rush across the room and grips up one brer and his chick, and there’s a package all wrapped up in clingfilm like a tube on the floor. Probably had it hidden in her pussy and tried passing it over but flopped. She’s screaming her head off as they take her down.
They bend up her man and take him out of the visiting room. Fuckinell. This place has everything. Love, violence, sacrifice, longing, oppression. Everything and nothing. I’ll be out in a few days anyway.
When they take me back to Willesden Magistrates’ for a hearing, the numbness is there within me, muffling the outside world even as I get brought back into it. I get sent off for a probation review. The probation officer has only one arm and the sleeve of his suit jacket is pinned up around the stump. Eyes like rusty hooks and tea-stained teeth. I say I’m doing an English degree at Queen Mary University and he says so what? I’ve got two degrees. I consider banging him in the face and trashing the room but I need to go home. The magistrate gives me new curfew conditions, this time without putting me on tag. I have to report to Paddington Green police station every week and do 250 hours of community service. Bun dat. Anyway, I’m free to go. The day feels detached. I’m oil on water. Nah I’m frozen, waiting to melt back into normal life.
This is an edited extract from Gabriel Krauze’s novel “Who They Was,” which will be published by Fourth Estate in September