The ABC Con
Carlo Gébler

The ABC Con

Carlo Gébler
According to the prison shrink who did a report on me recently, I’m very selfish. I wouldn’t disagree. I am. Only I’d add this: I’m selfish in a good way. That’s me – selfish in a good way.
The time, Sunday afternoon, the place, ‘E’ and ‘F’ wings Recreation Room, Block 3, HMP Loanend, outside Belfast. A tabloid, the Sunday Muck, was going from prisoner to prisoner. It was full of lurid articles about criminals and their trials that we all read carefully of course, either because we knew the men, or because there was a chance they’d be joining us, or both.
One of the articles was about a Seanie McDonagh, a traveller. It was his first offence so nobody knew him. According to the hack who’d written it, Seanie lived on a halting site with his mother on the edge of West Belfast. He was a drug dealer. He was also up for rape. One of his buyers was a girl who couldn’t pay so in lieu of a few pound he screwed her. She was twelve though Seanie thought eighteen. Or so the article said he said. The judge wasn’t impressed with Seanie’s defence. Neither were my fellow cons that afternoon. Show his face up here we’ll show him, fucking raping paedo cunt, they muttered. I said nothing. Blowhards, I thought.
It was the next day, which was Monday. I was in the storeroom counting bedding rolls, one of my jobs as wing orderly. “Chalky!” I heard Hayes bellow.
I stepped out of the storeroom and padded down the corridor, cells to the left and right of me. It was quiet. Everyone was either at work, or locked. I crossed the circle at the top, and got to the class office door.
“Enter,” said Hayes from inside. I went in. I found Hayes staring up at the white board that lists the names and prison numbers and cell numbers of the cons on ‘E’ and ‘F’ wings.
“Can you get Cell 2 ready?” said Hayes. “Bedding roll, welcome pack, you know the drill.”
“Give it a brush out as well.”
“Certainly,” I said.
“Don’t you want to know who the new arrival is? I bet you do, you nosey bastard!”
“No, I’m happy to wait,” I said.
Not true but I wasn’t going to let him know that. In a jail the more you keep hidden, even from a decent screw, the better.
“I admire your restraint.”
“Thank you, Mr Hayes.”
Through the office window I heard the sound of jeering, the ugly kind that puts you on edge. It came from the Punishment Block I thought. Some poor fucker, probably a Rule 23 who was going to be kept in isolation for his own protection, was getting a roasting from the cons who weren’t Rule 23s and were there for punishment.
“Our new guest’s name is Seanie McDonagh,” said Hayes. “He’s a tinker, sorry itinerant.”
He paused deliberately so I could admire his correction. I remembered the Sunday Muck article but didn’t let on. That’s the way. Say and show nothing.
“I’ll get Cell 2 ready,” I said.
“You do that,” said Hayes.
Seanie was sentenced to ten years and arrived a couple of mornings later from the remand wing looking pretty sorry for himself and carrying two paper sacks full of his clothes. He was early twenties, wore his hair short, and had a wide forehead, a long face, a little mouth and a sharp chin. His hands and feet were enormous and he was a giant, six four at least. His size plus the warning we’d got from other travellers in Loanend that he wasn’t to be touched would keep him safe. My fellow prisoners who’d been talking hard on Sunday in the Recreation Room mightn’t be friendly to Seanie but no way would they take a pop at him now. Do that and they’d have to take on his whole tribe and they hadn’t the balls for that. Of course they hadn’t.
I issued Seanie with his bedding roll and his welcome pack (every sentenced con gets one; it's got a razor, a toothbrush, writing paper, and all kinds of other shit), and helped him make the bed and get the place generally shipshape and then, glancing round his cell which frankly looked fucking dismal, there was absolutely nothing in it, I asked him how he planned to pass his first evening as a sentenced man. I knew he wouldn’t get his TV for a couple of days, you see, so this was an important question.
“Dunno,” he said.
“There’s a shelf of paperbacks up on the circle. Jeffrey Archer, that sort of stuff. Take one.”
“I don’t think I’d like that,” he said.
“The screws have puzzle books with crosswords, Sudoku, that sort of malarkey. I could get you one.”
“I don’t think I’d like that,” he said.
He sounded flat, lonely, baffled and sad. Well, why wouldn’t he? He’d just moved into a pissy cell which smelt of spunk and toilet disinfectant: it was cold and cheerless and dreary and he was going to be in here for years with no one but himself for company. I know, you’ve only yourself to blame (you’ve done the crime so you do the bloody time) but it's so fucking depressing at the start of a sentence, and what you have to do, what you must do, is get busy, get occupied, immediately, otherwise the mood sets in and then you’re fucked.
“So what are you going to do?”
“Look,” I heard myself saying, “I’ve got this matchstick kit I got months ago from the Tuck Shop. It’s for an Irish High Cross or something. I opened it and that’s as far as I got. Not for me, I realised. I don’t have the patience. Why don’t I get it? You can have it.”
He looked at me. He wasn’t sure. Was I trying to scam him?
“Don’t worry, it’s a gift, you won’t owe me anything.”
He was still unsure.
“I’ll fetch it. I’ll leave it with you. You don’t want it, give it back tomorrow. I can’t say fairer. What do you say?”
He nodded. I fetched the box back to him. I took off the lid and laid out the plan which explained in pictures how to build the cross step by step. I showed him how to use the match cutter and I checked the glue was still soft in the bottle. It was.
“You’re ready to go,” I said. “See how you get on. If you’re not interested, give it back tomorrow.”
“You really don’t want it?” he said and I said I really didn’t want it and it looked to me like he believed what I said and he was happy with that and so was I. You see, I felt sorry for him, first night of a ten year stretch, and I believed it might help the poor cunt pass the time.
Seanie took to the kit like a duck to water. He’d the thing assembled, sanded, varnished and painted within the week and at two foot high it was impressive I have to say. Then Hayes supplied Seanie with more matchsticks (Hayes did this out of pity) and he began making matchstick thingamajigs of his own design: these included a CD rack, a tobacco tin, and a box for playing cards, and as he got better he began to introduce patterns into his work. Matchstick knick-knacks are common in jail (lots of cons make them) but Seanie’s were a cut above the usual stuff: they were well made, nicely finished, and even attractive.
Now we go forward a few months. Seanie had a job with the garden squad and he had a TV and he spent his evenings making his matchstick novelties. As jail lives go, it wasn’t too bad; then of course Seanie had to go and fuck it up, didn’t he? He went into John Boyle’s cell on ‘E’ wing, and the Boiler as he was known (he’d glassed a man in a pub and taken his eye out and was doing eight) caught Seanie in the act and he was so incensed he went round to Seanie’s cell and smashed every single thing Seanie had made out of matchsticks, and everyone in the jail agreed, including those of Seanie’s stripe, this was fair. A prisoner is caught stealing from another prisoner (a heinous crime in our book) he gets what he deserves.
A few hours after Boiler’s wreck-up, I found Seanie in his cell with tears and snot running down his face and his bin filled with his smashed-up matchstick whimsies and his Irish cross at his feet.
He was going to get Boiler he told me and he was going to kill him. This was not a good idea, I said. Boiler was lethal. A better idea, I argued, was to appear indifferent.
“Just act like you don’t care,” I said.
“Get new matchstick kits from the tuck shop, start building. Make another Irish High Cross, or an Irish caravan, or an Irish cottage – anything. That’s the way to win. Show you don’t care.”
After a long conversation (I’m telling this a lot more quickly than it happened) he agreed.
“Where’s your Tuck Shop form?” I said. “Let’s do it now.”
As I spoke I saw something on his face and I realised, of course, Seanie didn’t read or write and I knew I’d known this all along only I hadn’t let myself know I knew it until now, and the moment after I twigged, the strangest, weirdest idea came into my head. Why did it come? I can’t tell you. It was just one of those things you don’t plan and you can’t explain but that happen.
“Tell you what,” I said and I put my idea to him. He’d make me the alphabet, big and small letters, out of matchsticks, and each letter would be half a matchstick deep, and I’d pay him, 50 grammes of tobacco, plus I’d cover the cost of the materials. Seanie thought there was some scam involved and it took me a while to convince him. Then I got some paper and a letter stencil from the art teacher Mrs Cartmill, drew the letters out for him and off he went. Three weeks later, bish, bash, bosh, he had it done, the alphabet, twice, big and small, and that was the moment, as I paid him his fifty grammes, I put the next part of my idea into effect.
“Why don’t you sign up for the literacy class,” I said. “Mrs Gregg’s coming down the wing getting names. Why not put your name down?”
He looked doubtful and annoyed.
“What’s that?” I pointed at ‘Z’.
“’Z’” he said.
“And that?”
“And that?”
“See, you’re the ABC con. You know the alphabet already. You’re half way there, but all the other guys in the class will know Jack shit. You’ll be the star. Plus, have you seen Mrs Gregg?”
Seanie knew that I was making sense and when Mrs Gregg appeared at his cell door (she wore long skirts and perfume and bobbed her hair and she featured in the fantasies of all of us who knew her when we wanked), he said “Yes”, and she added his name to her list and beamed.
And that was that. Seanie started two days later and over time, as he put it, he got the word.
We became friends and then I was able to get him to steal to order from the gardens for me, fruit and veg mostly, but also a knife for a con who needed a weapon and who paid with an enormous lump of blow that took Seanie and me a fortnight to smoke.
If the shrink got wind of any of this what would he say? Manipulative narcissist?


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