I shiver in the darkness and clasp my precious cigarette in my fingers. It is the last of a carton bartered the hard, humiliating way and purchased with filthy favours given to foreign men with sweaty skin and dark complexions in the twilight shadows of the prison latrines. I dropped my self-respect into a volcano long ago, where it burnt to cinders. I have no possessions, and no assets to bequeath the wife and children I don’t have. Time is the only property I have left, and it is soon to be foreclosed. Days are the only currency I hold, and they are wasting away like the British pound. Time is just an empty word, drained of its relevance. Getting to the end of each day is my raison d’etre now, because I am a death row prisoner waiting for my summons.
When I was imprisoned, I recall adapting to the stinking inferno of testosterone and sinewy flesh. The first form of mental salvation from the skeletal ghouls sharing the seven metre by seven metre cell was sleep, but the terrible surroundings that greeted me each time I woke from the brief therapy of dreams put me into a coma of depression. It was equal to the punishing reality heroin addicts on this wing face when plummeting from the heavens of their highs down to the hell of the here-and-now.
Then I had to fit into the hideous hierarchy of the cell. I was a foreigner, so my abuse was guaranteed. There were agonising initiations and ritual humiliations conducted in the moonlight hours as the guards giggled at my screams. However, I survived and took my place somewhere near the bottom of the pyramid of power and have learned to sit mutely and smile carefully for eight and a half years as the cockroaches trespass on my hard-won chocolate bars and rice, and the cicadas outside maintain their eerie, buzzing lament for the time bleeding out of my life.
Next came technological privations: my mobile phone was traded within six months of my incarceration and is probably now in a vast tomb of buried gadgets somewhere in the developing world. No televisions or computers. All digital arteries are severed and the guards taunt me with references to the privileges I would be afforded in a UK prison where a PlayStation Console and Skype would be guaranteed for the sake of my human rights. My sustenance is a bowl of mouldy rice each day, and instead of a high definition television and Netflix subscription serving me Hollywood remakes and other helpings of cinematic schlock, I have only the long, lamentable matinee of reverie to keep me entertained as I replay scenes from the feature film of my life’s better days.
My execution has been announced and cancelled seven times. On the first five occasions individuals or organizations I do not know postponed my death either through appeals or by exploiting technicalities in Indonesian law as remote and obscure to me as edicts scribbled on ancient Babylonian tablets. I went into intense trances of terror where I was literally frozen rigid, unable to move or speak for hours before I learned I was not going to die. However, my feelings switched to indifference and then to frustration as I sought out metaphors to express the hopelessness of my situation. Now I have resigned myself to the role I am obliged to play in this game of Russian roulette with this government. There have been seven empty chambers so far: seven precarious life extensions that have kept the white afterlife robes off my body and the firing squad’s rifles shouldered for another hour, or another day.
The date for the latest round of executions was announced in one of the Attorney General’s laconic statements two months ago, and the corporate global media outlets, who have been profiting handsomely from my long journey to death, spat the information across the internet where it competed unequally for reader interest against stories about C-List celebrities breaking wind on reality television shows. There are rumours that my name has yet again made it onto the list of the damned, but perhaps this is journalistic fiction. Letters from friends grimly summarise the British internet sentiment towards me. They tell of thousands of digital calls for my blood, of the keyboard lynch-mob collectives demanding that I die. They tell me of foreboding Facebook comment threads metres long packed with semi-literate animosity. Sorry have no sympathy u get wot you diserve and death to drug trafikers go the comments. I smile grimly on the floor of the cell at the surreal evolution of such internet lynch-mobs, and at how the desire to wish death upon others has survived in human hearts for millennia. Back in the ancient Colosseum I picture blood-thirsty Romans voting for the vanquished man’s death on tablet PCs miraculously transported through time.
Anyway, all of this happened because I ignored the following sentence printed on a landing card and typeset in a blood red triangle:
DRUG TRAFFICKERS WILL FACE THE DEATH PENALTY
I hear the murmur of voices down the corridor and the dull, rubbery thud of booted footfalls coming nearer and my body tenses. But why am I still afraid after so many false alarms? Death is simply the boulder that’s been at the top of the cliff for years poised to fall. I hear the keys rattling in the lock and the door opening.
“Here’s your ticket”, said Sal as he tossed a Thai Airways economy return into the centre of our wooden table in the Angels beer bar on Pattaya’s Beach Road. He took a swig from his giant bottle of Chang beer and surveyed the aging western men around us nursing lukewarm beers and faltering libidos in the sweltering heat. A few of them were trying to interest the scantily dressed hostesses who looked fed up with prostitution as they sat wearing surly masks of contemplation in front of their mobile phone screens. Although this eight-and a-half year old event was over in mere minutes, the details have lingered in my memory with agonizing clarity.
Sal was a fleshy, porcine Mancunian in his forties. Droplets of sweat clung to his pink, balding head and a damp t-shirt contained his flabby torso. He’d been in Thailand for years, ran a bar and prepared drug mules for high-risk transfers of ‘product’ across South East Asia.
I looked out beyond the clusters of lobster-pink sunbathers and local hustlers on the beach at the jet-ski riders ploughing trails of surf on the pale green sea. I thought of the risks these thrill seekers were taking, of accidents and of being cheated out of money by the operators playing the ‘pay for damaged jet-ski’ scam routine. However, the enormity of my risk made the suffering of this potential con trivial by comparison.
My assignment was to take five kilograms of the Golden Triangle’s finest heroin to Jakarta in the false bottom of a specially adapted suitcase, glam Hollywood criminal style, for the reward of five thousand pounds sterling. I gulped down the ice-cold beer and tried not to think about the consequences of discovery. For that year, I had been a full-time drinker and prince of debauchery in this mistress of sin called Pattaya. I had intended just to recuperate from a profitable year teaching lazy petroleum company apprentices in Saudi Arabia. However, as with so many men tempted by the neon sex palaces and turned into helpless zombies of lust by the nubile bar girls in their lace thongs, I extended my visa, rented a flat, and set fire to my self-control. I went through my life savings in five months. This was followed by a period of evictions from hostels, stealing food and begging with my head bowed and the palms of my hands upward in a travesty of Buddha on Beach Road with the freelance street-walkers looking at me with loathing. It was only a matter of time before I allowed bad company to offer me a way to earn enough to get off this self-destructive path.
“Has this suitcase been used before?” I asked Sal, who frowned at me, as though questions from a lowly, pitiful mule were impertinent. His glances at his watch had discouraged attempts to communicate during this exchange, and he wanted me out of his life as quickly as possible.
“You what?” he grunted.
“The case. Has another runner used it successfully? Is the hidden compartment X-ray proof?” I asked. What futility to ask such things now!
“Dunno mate”, said Sal without interest in my concern. I looked into his grey, wary liquid eyes. He reminded me of a parasitical species of sea creature feeding off the human plankton of Pattaya from the safety of his bar.
That’s Steve from Vancouver, Canada. He’s an ex ‘stoner’ not adapting to his new cannabis- free life and twenty-year sentence well. The mere five grams of meth amphetamine he stashed in his rucksack spared him the bullets. You’d think he was glad to have avoided the death penalty, but he bitches constantly about the cell, the food and his precious and oh so heinously abused human rights. He was OK at first, but rapidly became unbearable after the two-week mark.
“Quiet asshole!” commands Santoso, a heavily tattooed but charismatic gang leader also sentenced to death. He looks disdainfully at the pale, flabby Canadian while chewing some tobacco, which he spits onto the floor to punctuate his authority in the cell and demand obedience. For a man who controlled the beach party heroin catering in Bali for years, and told fascinating stories of close encounters with British and American A-list celebrities taking package holidays in depravity, he is an unlikely champion of tranquillity. He detests din and clamour and quells it in the cell forcefully. He meditates often, which has a calming effect on us as we watch this one-time underworld thug communicate silently with the universe.
“I wanna go home”, whimpers Steve, dreaming of the dope vending machines of Vancouver.
Nobody summoned me from the cell yesterday or the day before, so my confined, extended life continues. The footsteps in the corridor yesterday heralded a different kind of unwelcome visitor. It was another presumptuous, opinionated advocate employed by a panel of legal alchemists or ‘Human Rights Lawyers’ who appointed themselves to my case. They are suited self-aggrandizers determined to turn my guilt into innocence and gain media plaudits and enhanced Linkedin profiles.
“This gives us hope Matthew. This will give us more time to get the UN involved, and Amnesty International on board and launch more online petitions”, he says. I cannot fathom how my possible inclusion on a firing-squad ‘to be shot’ list could be described as hopeful, but I have long since given up trying to understand the alternative logical universe these people inhabit.
“We can get multiple platforms to raise the profile of your case across social media channels.” I look at the aperture of a window as he drones away, and contemplate the liberation death, the unknown, enigmatic counterpart of life may offer me. It might be better.
“However”, continues the pest in my cell in an admonishing tone, “You’ve got to be more pro-active. More engaged with the process.”
I listen wearily to his millennial lexicon. It is full of nauseating organizational cliché unfit for my circumstances. He is telling me off for refusing to give journalists any interviews when they come to the prison seeking my wretched words.
“You’re missing opportunities to keep your message in the public eye. To reach key opinion leaders on this issue.” He talks to me as if he is my mentor, and I am a junior of some kind who needs to shape-up.
I survey his tanned face, with its tidy features, lovingly attended shiny enamel-coated teeth, trimmed eyebrows and swept over hair brought under control by what his generation wouldn’t call gel but product. I look at the immaculate symmetry of the Windsor knot of his mint green tie complementing his brilliant white shirt contained within his glossy black Armani suit and know that I see a glib young man who thinks that he’s got the slickest replies on the planet bestowed upon him by Toastmasters membership. I enjoy the discomfort when he sees my jaundiced face and rotting teeth and coughs when I breathe cigarette smoke in his direction.
“This has gone on for far too long”, I complain. My voice qualifies this statement with the timbre of hard, punishing experience that is impossible for this upstart moral pretender to challenge. He shifts momentarily in the chair on the opposite side of the table in the prisoner interview room. It’s the giveaway body-language of a salesman shifting tack.
“I just want it all to end. To be over soon”, I say as I inhale the nicotine of child-labour produced tobacco and look wistfully through the miniscule window at the crisp blue sky festooned with clouds. So far, the president has rejected all our appeals for clemency.
He gives a condescending sigh.
“Look. You’ve got to keep working on your next appeal. We’ve got Reprieve marketing—I mean promoting—your case on its website and our expert digital media strategists could make your profile larger and get a Facebook petition page with millions of followers if you could just put a bit more effort.”
“Into what?”, I ask challenging his elliptical comment. “Staying alive?”
He leans forward and begins speaking with a slow, self-righteous emphasis as if I am a trouble-maker for having the nerve to decide for myself when this eight-year legal charade should end.
“You owe it to your friends and family to keep fighting this miscarriage of justice. You owe it to other victims of this cruel, inhumane and barbaric form of punishment”.
“Miscarriage of justice”, I sneer with bitterness. My stock of patience for these delusional clowns and their crass agendas ran out long ago. I get up abruptly and walk over to the window to see more of the sky.
“You have an allergy to logic counsellor, and a poor grasp of your profession. I trafficked narcotics, remember?”
The words trigger images from that dreadful summer morning at Soekarno-Hatta airport. The false bottom on the suitcase was so flimsy the X-ray machine pierced it immediately. Cocksure, expensive local lawyers advised me to plead not guilty and this ensured the capital punishment with a capital ‘P’.
“Under duress!” he protests with a grin, as though scoring an intellectual point. As though this is a game.
“Yeah. Under duress”, I say, and I release a sarcastic laugh.
After the second failed appeal, these slick saviours of the doomed invited themselves into my cell and started hustling me. They said they were going to take my case pro bono, and line up high-profile celebrities to sound off on my behalf on YouTube. All I had to do was agree that I had been under duress and that I had was an innocent mule and victim of bad luck and unscrupulous drug-barons threatening me.
“Just think of what we can achieve if we can your verdict overturned!” he says eagerly, which reminds me of the sordid presentations his colleagues made in previous visits. They subjected me to death by PowerPoint, showing slides indicating a flow-chart of favourable outcomes if my verdict could be overturned, or better still if the intervention of the Prime Minister, using lucrative trade deals as leverage and good old Best of British suave diplomatic threat, could get me pardoned for the sake of bilateral relations and future posterity.
“You’ve got to remember. Innocence is a fluid and morally relative concept”, said a conniving member of this entourage. “And you must profit from your freedom when we work together to win that prize.”
The slides showed ‘opportunities’ available to me in the unlikely event of having my death sentence overturned and repatriation to the UK arranged. They included paid television interviews, book deals, lucrative appearances on ‘celebrity’ reality shows, appearances in Foreign Office The Dangers of Drug Trafficking public information broadcasts—very useful exposure to possible casting agents they said—and speaking tours at schools.
I think of the bureaucrats in air-conditioned offices impassively looking at my death warrant as they await the go-ahead phone call for my transportation to firing squad island. Apparently, the UK ambassador will be notified of my execution date, and he will no doubt make a mental note of this as he stocks his drinks cabinet.
A British woman caught trafficking cocaine in South America benefited from the work of these well-connected chancers. Petitions and political pressure secured a prison transfer to England and her freedom shortly after. Following this, she became a ‘mystery contestant’ for I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here where her shrieking meltdowns and fornication with a bankrupt eighties disk-jockey in a tank full of termites made her millions. Another freed returning drug dealer reinvented himself as conceptual artist and sold condoms packed with human excrement — ‘daring work that challenges modern perceptions of art’ according to a major critic — to the Tate Modern for half a million pounds.
“Anything is possible: the sky’s the limit for you if we can hit the jackpot acquittal”, enthuses my self-appointed freedom cheerleader with a sickening, synthetic grin.
“There’s currently a huge demand for pardoned death row inmates from content producers of all kinds. We can manage your career for a very reasonable fee. All you’ve got to do is make some noise, and scream injustice a little bit louder.”
I watch and worship the crisp azure sky beyond the window and long to fly into it like a dove.
I turn around and tell my visitor to leave and never return.
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