Every time he finished one sentence, back he came again within a week or so, to do time for some equally trivial offence. His family, who were both well-to-do and well- respected, were embarrassed by his behaviour. Once they even sent him from the family home in Armagh to Belfast for examination by a psychiatrist. Seamus, for his part, was so disturbed by this experience that he stole the psychiatrist's car and promptly ended back in the relative safety of Belfast Prison again.
That's when I met him. I was on remand at the time he returned to his old job as orderly in A Wing. He used to 'bump out' the wing three times a day, and when I was on my way from my cell on the bottom landing or sitting in it during lock-up I used to see or hear Seamus 'bumping' his way up and down the well-polished floor. 'Bumping' meant polishing the tiles which stretched a hundred yards from the 'circle' up to the end of the wing, and Seamus had been doing it for so long that he now took a certain pride in the dull red glow which was produced by his endless to-ing and fro-ing. He used a bumper, which is like a brush but bigger, with a wooden box where the brush-head should be. The box was weighted down with bricks and its base covered with blankets. It was heavy and tedious work pushing and pulling this contraption over the tiles, all the time trying to coax a shine from them. Seamus didn't seem to mind. The screws didn't really bother him except when they wanted their tea made or some menial task performed. When they did require his services he complied with a slow yet unhesitating obedience. Sometimes one or two of the nastier ones would poke fun at him, but he was so much a part of the place that everyone took him for granted.
On Sundays, during mass in the prison chapel when the political and the ordinary prisoners came together, we would pass him cigarettes and at night when we were locked up and he was still bumping up and down the silent, deserted wing we would slip newspapers under our cell doors for him.
He was always extremely cautious about associating too openly with us. We were fairly rebellious, holding parades in the prison yard, segregating ourselves from loyalist prisoners and dealing with the prison administration only through our elected OC. We were continuously on punishment, being subjected to loss of privileges and petty restrictions.
As he bumped back and forth, Seamus was a silent, indifferent observer of the daily battles between us and the screws. Or so, at least, it appeared to us. Then one day a screw spilled a bucket of dirty water over Seamus's clean floor.
'If you don't keep this place cleaner than that,' the screw guldered, 'I'll have you moved to the base.'
Seamus looked at him in dumb disbelief and then, with tears trickling slowly down his face, he went on his hands and knees at the screw's feet to mop up the water which was spreading like a grey blemish over his floor. The screw was a new one, and that incident was only the first of many. It got so bad subsequently that poor Seamus was even afraid to accept our cigarettes and we found the newspapers which we slipped into the hall for him still lying there when we slopped out the following morning.
There wasn't much we could do about it. We willed Seamus to resist and our OC went as far as to make a complaint about the screw, whom we all spontaneously ostracised. But we were beginning to despise Seamus for showing no signs of fighting back, and in his own way he seemed to be blaming us for his troubles.
And then Seamus rebelled. I was coming from the toilet at the time. He stood only a few yards from me, bumper at hand, looking at a group of screws loitering outside the dining-hall.
'Fuck yous]' he screamed, his words echoing along the wing and up along the tiers of the high glass ceiling.
'Fuck yous]' he screamed again. 'Yous think yous are somebody ordering me about. And you,' he rounded on me with a vengeance. 'Fuck you too and your cigarettes and your stupid bloody newspapers. I'm sick of yous all and your awful bloody floor.'
At that the wing exploded into noise, with prisoners banging their cell doors, rattling the bars and generally making a hectic, frantic and frightening clamour.
'Tell them to bangle their floor, Seamus.'
'C'mon, Seamus, let it all out.'
The screws, caught unaware by the suddenness and the ferocity of the din, moved hesitantly out of the wing and into the circle. There, safe behind the heavily barred gates, they looked up towards where Seamus and I stood, unescorted and alone, in the middle of the wing. The closed cell doors stared blankly at us, the floor stretched sullenly to meet the prison walls and the noise continued unabated from all sides. Down at the circle the screws had drawn their batons, and one of them was phoning for assistance.
'Shit,' said Seamus to me, a slow, sheepish grin creeping across his face as he surveyed the scene and heard the shouts of encouragement ringing out from all quarters.
'Ah, c'mon,' I said, glancing nervously at the circle where reinforcements had begun to arrive. 'We better go down there and let them quare fellas know there's nothing wrong.' I had to shout to be heard above the continuing noise. 'If this keeps up they'll think it's a break-out and you and me'll be murdered.'
Seamus ignored me and sat back on his bumper. He took a crumpled roll-up from behind his ear and lit it, slowly and defiantly exhaling the smoke towards the circle.
'I've only a week to do anyway,' he muttered. 'Sit down and take it easy. We'll go when I'm ready.'
And so we did, he to the punishment block and me back to my cell.
He didn't appear back on the wing for a few days after that, but the screws told us that he was okay and for what that was worth we were content enough. A new orderly came to bump the wing and life returned to its monotonous normality. Then, on a Thursday, Seamus returned: we greeted him with a shouted, uproarious welcome. The screws didn't seem to mind. He was due for release anyway the following day and there was little they could do about it.
That night, after lock-up, a muffled knock brought me to the cell door. I peered through the narrow chink between the heavy door and the door-frame.
'Do you want a cup of tea?' Seamus hissed in at me. 'Hurry up if you do.'
I grabbed my mug, delighted at the thought of such an unexpected luxury, and hissed back at him: 'How're you going to get the tea in here?'
'Shut up,' he ordered. 'Houl' your mug up to the chink.'
I did as I was told and smiled to myself as the end of a folded newspaper appeared through the narrow gap.
'Widen out the end of the paper and houl' your mug below it.'
As I did so a trickle of strong, hot tea poured down the funnel-like folds of the newspaper into my waiting mug.
'Enjoy that,' said Seamus. 'There's no bromide in it.' He withdrew his tea-sodden paper.
'I've more for some of the other lads but I'll have to hurry up before the screws come back.' He hesitated for a second: 'I'm sorry for giving off the other day. You know the score yourself: I was doing heavy whack. Anyway, I won't be back there again,' he added with feeling, 'so good luck.'
'Good luck, Seamus,' I whispered.
He moved from the door, then turned back again. Through the chink I could see his lips widen into a grin.
'Up the rebels,' he smiled.
That was the last I saw of him. I was released myself a few months later and I forgot about Seamus. That is, until this morning, when his photograph stared out at me from the front page of the Irish News. '29-year-old Co. Armagh man shot dead after crashing through a British Army road-block in a stolen car.'
At least he never did go back there again, I thought to myself. But you never know. Maybe he was on his way back when he was killed? Probably not though. Whatever institutionalised refuge Belfast Prison held for him had been lost during his last stay there. They'd never let him bump out A Wing floor again after his last outburst. We'd made sure of that.
No, he probably knew what he was doing when he crashed that road-block.
What was it he had said to me that night he gave me the tea? Up the rebels?
'Aye, Seamus, up the rebels.'
'Up the Rebels' is a short story taken from 'Selected Writings' by Gerry
Adams, which is published by Brandon Press next Thursday, 15 September, pounds 7.95
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