I was at x Prison on Friday, for the last time. It’s closing in May. It will be knocked down, and replaced with luxury flats. The women are being dispersed to different prisons, and some of them released, some deported. The staff will, most of them, be jobless.
From the moment I entered the first gate there was an air of aftermath, shot through with that feeling of the very last guests leaving a farewell party that ended, for all intents and purposes, some time ago. The guards were almost friendly – their frowning officiousness, their duty to obstruct had out-vanished the prison walls and outrun their final paycheque.
My friend the Muslim chaplain comes to meet me; we wend our way down yellow corridors, through innumerable iron gates she opens with huge keys. She takes prayer mats of white and gold from a cardboard box and smoothes them in close ranks across the floor.
The thickly painted walls and dull carpet seem very dear in the dwindling number of their days. Prisoners had found peace and kindness and respite here, or portions thereof, at least. Surely some residue of prayer lingers in brick and fibre like the scent and smoke of incense.
Guards appear at the doors, with a crowd of women behind them. My friend hurries out to meet them. They fall into a queue and raise their wrists to her, she daubs perfume on each one. She always does this – ‘it is beautiful, like faith, and it makes them happy, which pleases Him’.
R. leads the prayers, reads from the Qu’ran, extemporises a homily. The prisoners rest their backs against the wall, their knees drawn up to their chins; a dark-skinned young woman in a rosy hijab reclines, smiling, with her head resting in the open hand of an upraised arm.
Dressed in the white garb of the kitchen workers, a woman in a hijab of midnight blue with scattered silver threads sits with her eyes shut, face raised, utterly still. Silently, in steady tempo, she wipes away her tears with open hands, like a woman smoothing a cloth. Next week she will be deported to Brazil. Without her three young children.
With imperceptible motion, women have gathered near her in small clusters. In a concert of silence – as if silence were music – an arm reaches out to smooth another’s shoulder, a hand rests briefly on the back of a bowed, veiled head. I think of the restraint that allows raindrops to withstand gravity, to hang shimmering on thin bare branches in winter. Of ‘the courage that is never seen in anyone who didn’t need it’.
At 4:00 the guards sitting by the door stand up and the women file slowly out.
One of them, a Sudanese woman who had told me quickly a tangled tale of a journey through Uganda and Zaire, a life in London, a multitude of children who – it became gradually clear – had been most of them miscarried and some of them imagined – holds out a sand-coloured hijab to Rukhsana, neatly folded.
‘I want one more beautiful,’ she says.
‘I will bring you one tomorrow.’