MY fellow tea ladies and I emerged from this year’s production at HM Prison Winchester-the play had been excellent, the cast word perfect and the audience had given a standing ovation. I was distracted; visiting the prison always makes my head spin. We were to have supper at Janie’s house, which I’d never been to -I was given instructions about alleys behind houses and wooden garden gates, but I wasn’t really listening. It’s only a couple of streets from where I live, so I nipped home to pick up a bottle of wine and set off.
There were several alleys, but the clue was in the car waiting to collect one of our group, who wasn’t staying for supper. And there was a wooden garden door ajar, just as had been described. I went in, calling the equivalent of cooee, but there were no signs of life. I peered round the extension, and I saw a man, slumped in the corner, head sunk on his chest, quite possibly dead. I backed away and tried another garden door. This garden was unloved and would certainly not have belonged to Janie.
I retraced my steps and asked the man in the parked car if he knew which door I needed. He didn’t, but then his wife appeared and pointed to the correct one, in a different alley. I walked into the kitchen, where the play was being discussed over a glass of white wine. ‘I think there’s a dead man in the garden over there,’ I said.
Janie and Patsy have both been nurses in the NHS and there’s no situation for which they will not both physically and metaphorically roll up their sleeves. They didn’t hesitate. Still clutching glasses of wine, they followed me to the garden door and approached the slumped man. With the right level of confidence, sympathy and directness, they eventually got a grunt out of him.
He had no idea where he was, said he’d come from America. He had a bottle of whisky or brandy at his feet and a supermarket bag full of sweets. He had a bloodied hand wrapped in an amateur bandage and no teeth. He could barely hold his head up. Janie went to make appropriate phonecalls. I tried to stop her enormous labrador from adding to the man’s sense of bewilderment and Patsy continued to talk to him, kindly and firmly.
I heard the next door along slam. We remembered that somebody had mentioned a hostel in this street. I wondered whether he might perhaps have just wandered into the wrong garden. It’s easily done. Things fell into place. He remembered part of his address and he had some keys. Patsy got him to his feet. Together, the nurses shepherded him next door, which he unlocked-amazing he could get his key in the lock when he could barely stand. His room was appallingly dirty, about which he was touchingly ashamed. He turned on his tele-vision by using a match inserted into the on/off button in another miracle of co-ordination (‘turning on the TV-always the last reflex to go,’ said Janie with the grim humour of one who’s seen plenty of the dark side).
We left him, safe for now. Back in Janie’s kitchen, we resumed our discussion of The Fight in the Dog, written by Rib Davis for the prison production. It examines conscience, orders, peer pressure, commitment and belief against the backdrop of the First World War. The main character is a ‘conchie’, which leads him to be shunned by his neighbours, chucked by his girlfriend, ridiculed and imprisoned. He’s completely isolated and was brilliantly played by a man who had done several tours of Afghan-istan. None of the prisoners thought the protagonist was brave.
When you leave the prison, you are, of course, relieved that you can. And then, within half an hour, you come across a man who is as isolated as it’s possible to be and you find yourself hoping he might be in the play next year. An odd hope and a very long shot indeed.
* Follow Country Life magazine on Twitter