I was 7 when my dad went to jail for the first time. My childhood was blue carpeted visits halls and those blue jeans he always had to wear and his intense blue eyes that seemed to hold something more than he was letting me see. It was all very blue. He came out when I was 14 and then went back when I was 15. Almost like he couldn’t be outside with us, like the big green acres of land behind our house was just too open for him and our hugs too full of love that he wasn’t ready to receive after 7 years of having it limited to short hour-long snippets.
The winters with a dad to poke at the fire and carry us giggling up the stairs in blankets were robbed from us. The parents evenings he could never come too and the school plays with an empty seat. But we’d never say (me and little Corey) because we saw how mum was trying to be two parents rolled into one and we loved her for it. But she was mum, she would never be dad. She did the barbecues in summer and chased the monsters out from under the bed and caught all the spiders she was scared of too. But we wanted her and dad.
I was 17 when I had to sign up to work experience and I found myself spending a week working with sniffer dogs and watching them train, their little spaniel bodies wriggling with excitement when they found what they were meant too behind plug switches or wrapped around lightbulbs. I was full of questions and kept asking for stories, the gorier the better. It became a game, these broad shouldered men with stubbled faces and thick bodies trying to scare me (a 17 year old female with ‘no meat on your bones’ as my father used to say in those blue plastic chairs) and me asking for more, my eyes lit up with excitement when they told me how freezers were used as storage rooms for bodies.
‘Nothing fazes this one.’ A man called Logan commented with his dog, Rocky, straining on the lead to get to the dew-soaked grass.
‘Only because you ain’t seen nothing good n’ scary to tell her.’ Simon would joke.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t scared, it was just that they really were nothing compared to what I thought was the scariest thing in the world; losing my dad again. He’d been released after a shorter stint this time but this was different, he wasn’t withdrawn like last time. He wasn’t slightly reserved with his hugs anymore like he was afraid I’d break, he wrapped me in his arms like he never wanted to let go and ruffled my hair like I was still 7 but it was dad so I didn’t mind.
‘yes hon.’ He turned away from the hob and put the wooden spoon down.
‘It’s different this time.’ I didn’t have to explain what I meant because I sensed that he knew.
‘Good different?’ He knew. I knew he knew but he needed the clarification.
‘Yeah, good different, I feel like I’ve really got you back this time.’ My voice dropped to a whisper.
‘Good, that’s good.’ He looked pained. I heard him on the phone to mum when he was inside, crying on our birthdays and Christmas and random Tuesdays because he missed us. I wanted to take the phone and tell him he wasn’t alone because I’d cried on all those days because I missed him too but I couldn’t. Those were the times I was meant to be asleep, and those phone calls were for him and mum. Even at 7 I knew they needed that.
‘Why?’ I didn’t know what else to say, how to finish the question but it was my dad, again he just got it.
‘I was in a bad place the first time, the time you were 7. I was greedy and selfish and no good for your mother, let alone for being a dad. I thought the world owed me something so I took what I could, everything I could even when it wasn’t mine…’
‘You were a great dad.’ I interrupted. ‘You taught me how to ride a bike, remember?’
‘Of course, I remember.’ He eyes creased at the corners.
‘And you took us apple picking and we made those toffee apples and you know the time we went to a book fair and you brought me loads and would read them to me every night until I fell asleep. I couldn’t fall asleep unless you in the room with me.’
‘You mother did everything she could to keep it from you and your brother. And you were only 7 Brynn, you probably only remembered the good because that’s all you wanted to remember.’
‘But we never once doubted how much you loved us.’ A silence hung between us but it was a good silence, a grateful silence because as much as I had him back, he had me back now too. ‘So what about when I was 14? You still thought the world owed you?’
He picked up the wooden spoon and stirred the noodles for a moment before putting it back down. ‘Yes. Short version is yes I did and the long version is that nothing changed during my time inside, I was arrogant and surrounded by arrogant people and got what I wanted when I got angry because the screws got scared. I played the system.’
‘And the second time?’
‘There was a prison officer, Officer Whitlock and he got that right out of me. It took a while but he took the time to care, and a lot of them don’t care, but he cared and got me on an art course. I started to paint and you know I wasn’t too bad at it.’ He nodded his head at a canvas displayed proudly on the wall of a kingfisher that he’d painted with a gentle hand. ‘Scared me too, told me that I’d keep coming back if I stayed the way I was and just keep missing more and more milestones that were happening out here. He did a lot more than that but the most important thing he ever did was care. And I began to realise that I wasn’t being the person I wanted to be.’
I’d known from that moment that I wanted to be a prison officer, I wanted to be the one to care about someone’s dad so he went home to them and stayed home with them. But it would be another 3 years before I applied.
But for 3 years I set my alarm for 5:30 every morning and ran 5k, I did home workouts, I boxed copying YouTube tutorials. And on the days I didn’t want to get up and do it, those were the days I trained the hardest.
I didn’t want to apply yet though. Because now it was a dream and if I tried and failed it would go from being an ambition to a failed career and I wasn’t ready to let go before I’d even started. I also wasn’t ready to think that just maybe I was actually good enough to do this.
My journey started with an advert, you know those annoying pop up ones that everyone hates? It was for a job in the public services, one saying ‘make a difference’ and without hesitating I clicked on it. Somehow 6 months later I was stood in sturdy black leather boots, a pressed white shirt with black epaulettes and black combat trousers with a thick belt looped through the top with cuffs, a radio and a baton hanging off it.
I felt so far out of my depth like I was drowning and everyone else was swimming happily, their heads bobbing above the water. I wasn’t good enough for this. It was too much. I was 20 with no real life experience thrown into a cage with other officers in their 40s and with muscled arms that rippled when they moved, some even had silver slices of hair by their ears.
I was allocated D wing and 20 year old me was suddenly locking the doors on prisoners and breaking up fights and being the caring officer when it was all too much for them. I was the one that called their family members on the office phone to check up on them because they’d had an argument and weren’t answering the phone. I was the one that would search and chase and do everything I could to help solve a problem and make their time here slightly more bearable. I was the one they came too.
There was a sense of family among the officers, we had to stick together to get through this hell like place that we all agreed we loved, was our sense of purpose.
I made it my entire personality. It was what I would talk about with my friends at the bar on Friday night, they’d be like I used to be and want to hear the gruesome stories, they called me the ‘tough one’ and the ‘one with the cool job.’ I’d walk the long way home after a 15-hour shift because I wanted to wear my uniform for longer. And I wore it with pride. I couldn’t remember what I ever used to talk about before I had work stories to tell to eager ears. I put my blood, sweat and tears into that job and it became my greatest achievement, it became who I was. I was defined by my work as a prison officer. I bled after fights, nosebleeds soaking into my pristine ironed white shirts, stains there weren’t ever meant to come out. Running on blistered feet with sweat pouring from my brows to attend another alarm bell. Crying in hiccupped sobs at nothing. The day had been too mentally draining, too exhausting and I’d cry under the stars on the walk home over nothing in particular.
But as my mum used to say, 'if it's too good to be true then it usually is.' I busted my knee. It got stamped on and pushed out of place and ever since I walked with a limp that I tried desperately to hide. Shooting pains would spark up my leg with every step even with the blue brace strapped around it. Blue carpet, blue jeans, blue leg brace. It all started and ended with blue. Countless MRI scans and X-rays were meant to be a precaution, urged on by my mother who always thought the worst, until the doctor told me I was damaging my leg beyond repair by not letting it heal. I was a danger to myself. I had done enough damage that I would always walk with a limp but if I didn’t do something drastic soon I could end up with a walking stick in my early 20s.
‘Brynn.’ He clasped him clammy fingers together. ‘It’s your job. You’re pushing your body beyond it’s limits. I know it’s not my place to say but a permanent injury like this would do better in an office job.’ He’d been kind with round glasses and an oval friendly face but I saw him as the dream snatcher. He sent a letter to my work to see if there was anything they could put in place to ease the strain on my leg. There was no hiding anymore, they knew. And there was nothing they could do.
I started my dream job at 20 and was medically retired by 21. The dream was over. But I had done it, I had done arguably one of the toughest jobs on the planet and I had been damn good at it. I hadn’t just woken up and dragged my feet in a coffee induced haze to get through the routines of the day. I had loved every second.
Sat in the Governor’s office with a coffee and letter on the table in front of me, I bit back tears. I had never needed coffee to get me through the day, all it took was adrenaline and the fire my dad had always said was inside me. And the letter was too wordy, a lot of black print covering every scenario so I couldn’t sue them, like I would ever sue the place that was my second home.
I didn’t want too. I wasn’t ready. I sat in that office, alone, for hours hearing the clock count down the seconds until I walked out the door and took my uniform off for the last time. Tears spilled down my cheeks and I gave up trying to stop them. My hands were shaking and everything seemed very close and stuffy. I sat and I stayed sat on that wooden chair, the sort that was designed so people don’t stay in it for too long, but I stayed and drank it all in for the last time. The odd smells of cooking and disinfectant merged together. Distant ringing alarms bells that I stood for on instinct and then slowly lowered myself back into the chair. It wasn’t my place to run to alarm bells anymore. Or it wouldn’t be once I had signed that page.
I wasn’t ready. I leant over the table and a single wet tear dropped onto the page and stained the corner. At least once I’d left the building a part of me would still be here. That letter would be filed away somewhere in a drawer, sandwiched in hundreds of other letters, and my tear would remain amongst the smell of old paper.
I put pen to paper and watched the ink stain the dotted line.
I still say prison officer when people ask my occupation, it may not be technically true anymore but it is who I am and I cannot let go.