I cracked the seal on the Charley's Black Label Rum and poured two glasses, one for Alex and one for myself. As I reached over to hand him the glass, my ribs twinged sharply, reminding me. I glanced around the bedroom in Grays: still sterile, filled with university furniture and my bulging duffle bags. I still couldn't believe it; a few days before I had been quite sure I would not be free, at this institution, at Harvard. The bruises on my ribs were the only hard reminders left, but the institutional experience I had just left was still vivid in my mind. I took a sip and began to tell him about last week.
I lived in Jamaica for seven years as a child. After I left in 1984, I knew I would return frequently, for this was home. I did return, in the summer of 1986, to spend a few weeks there with my friend Zac, relaxing before my freshman year in college. We spent most of the time in Kingston, visiting old friends and haunts. In the last week of August, we travelled to Ocho Rios, on the north coast, to feel the sand on our backs and hear the waves for the last time in many months. We checked into a large hotel on the beach, spending days swimming and nights prowling.
After three nights, we ran out of money. We checked out, planning to return to Kingston that day. But days in Jamaica are unhurried, and we missed the last bus. 2:00 am found us on the beach, resolved to brave the sand-flies as penance for our laziness. As we laid out our towels on the sand, something jingled. It was the key to the hotel room which we had forgotten to drop in the box on the way out.
We walked to the lobby and dialled room 213 from the in-house phone. Many rings. No answer. Nobody home. The prospect of a bed was too tempting, and we headed for the elevator.
At 5:30, there was a loud knock on the door. We did not respond. The door burst open. Peeling my eyelids apart, I saw two security guards, brandishing pistols. "Get up!" barked the larger one.
We sat, scared and dishevelled, in the hotel security office, unbelieving. They were pressing charges. The matter was now in the hands of the police. Delayed payment was out of the question; we needed to be taught a lesson. A Land Rover arrived and we were prodded inside.
At the police station, we were interrogated by Inspector Morgan. He was a large man, with eyes alight with the desire to complete the lesson. We begged, pleaded, offered thinly veiled bribes and begged for a lawyer. He was completely unmoved. Opening a desk drawer, he ordered us to remove our belts, watches, jewellery and shoelaces. Grinning, he led us downstairs. As we descended into the murk, I glanced at Zac. It was dark, and I could only see his eyes, wide and fearful.
Our cell door clanged shut with an unsettling finality. It was almost completely dark and the stench was appalling. When my eyes adjusted, I saw that we were in a concrete cell, about five by eight feet in diameter. A bucket stood in one corner, and three men shared a cigarette in the other. We stood awkwardly in our corner, not knowing what to say, fearing hostility. After a pause, one of the men beckoned us over, gravely passing Zac the cigarette. Zac inhaled deeply. This barrier down, we talked. Blacka was from Kingston. He was being tried for murder and armed robbery. Dennis was also from Kingston; he was in for fraud. Paul was from Ocho Rios and was being held on debt charges.
In the cell, time became slow and meaningless. It was impossible to tell the time; there was no ouside light and we had no watches. Our cellmates had developed an acute sense of time; at an apparently random point, Dennis announced "lunch time". Shortly thereafter an orderly arrived bearing a bucket. The scene that followed was almost Dickensian; prisoners came to life all around, clamouring at the bars, thrusting out their food pots for lunch. Zac and I had no pots, but Blacka and Paul shared their food with us. Four years of boarding school food had not prepared me for the tepid stew of rotten meat and boiled yams that emerged from the bucket. We were given a large mug of warm, brown water to share amongst the five of us. We passed the cup aroud, savouring each sip; the cell was stifling and hot, making the filthy water palatable. The meal over, Zac and I crawled to a corner, too exhausted and shocked to speak. I slept fitfully, trying not to think about the near or distant future.
I awoke, disoriented in the darkness, realising that morning had finally come by the noise of other prisoners. A guard opened our cell door. We lurched out, joining the other prisoners waiting to use the single sink. After washing, we were led back to our cell. "Do we get any food now?" I asked Paul. He shook his head. "Not till lunch". I asked how long he thought it would be till we went to trial. "I dunno. A day, six months...". I saw Harvard disappearing over the horizon; my plane was due to leave the following week. The day passed. We tore up a newspaper and made some cards (I still have them). Dennis cheated at poker. Zac and I began to devise schemes for release. We agreed that if one of us feigned illness, he could get a message out with the doctor. That night, we saw something that chased all such plans from our minds:
We were awakened by screams. "Missah Morgan! Missah Morgan! Bring de doctorman! This man dead!". This was interspersed with loud retching noises. There was no response from the guard. Finally, I heard one last retch and then silence. The guards did nothing to help. I never found out if he died or not.
Time began to blur. Days faded into nights, punctuated by brief trips to the sink and evil-smelling meals. I cannot remember the third day at all. On the fourth day, while we were washing, I begged the guard to let us use a phone. His response was to hit me in the ribs with his truncheon. I retreated into our cell, crying and wishing I were elsewhere.
On the fifth morning (I now had a good sense of the time of day), the guard opened the door. He grunted and beckoned towards the stairs. I did not want to ask questions; blind compliance seemed the best way to avoid further injury. As we left the cell, Dennis pressed something into Zac's hand.
At the top of the stairs, my right hand was handcuffed to Zac's left and we were led into the sunlight. For a moment I was blinded and unable to move. The sun had never felt so clean on my grimy skin. A policeman pushed us into a Land Rover with the barrel of his carbine. We were going to court.
On the journey, neither of us spoke; we did not want to contemplate the sentence which lay ahead.
As we stood in the defendents' box, I glanced down at our handcuffed wrists. We were both shaking. We pleaded guilty to one count of vagrancy and waited for the elderly judge to send us to jail, without passing go, for a year or two.
He released us with a warning and a reprimand.
Back at the station, our handcuffs were removed. We never got our watches and belts back; we were too scared to ask. We ran to the beach, swimming far out, trying to shed our skins and memories. As we dried off afterwards, Zac fished a sodden piece of paper from his shoe. On it was a Kingston phone number.
We caught the next bus back to Kingston, soaking in the loud reggae and the clash of a sick but mobile transmission. At home, I dialled the phone number. A woman's voice answered. I tried to explain: "Dennis is in jail in Ochi." There was a lengthy silence. "Again?" she said resignedly. She hung up. I stood there, clutching the phone. Finally I dialled the airline.