Short Story | Digging for Victory — by Jude Ellery, Illustrated by Cait Maloney
Marl is screwing up his eyes and scratching his bald spot the way he does when he’s thinking up a plan.
Oof is pretending to read while watching Marl from behind his book.
For a while the only sound in the six by eight cell is the flicking of cheap comic book pages. Then Oof asks the question.
“What you got brewin’, boss?”
Marl raises a finger to say he’s not done yet, but soon enough he strolls over to the tiny window and gazes out through the iron bars like a double-shifting detective at a set of venetian blinds.
“This running scheme.”
“It’s the pits.”
“We screwed Warden Glynn’s reading scheme by burning all them books, and we screwed his healthy eating scheme by lunching on gruel for a month instead of them apples. We got nothing but our dignity in here and they’re trying to steal that from under our noses.”
“I don’t wanna do no runnin’.”
“I can see that, Oof. I can see that and then some. Well then you listen up and you listen good. You see yesterday how Coach Saunders ran a tenth of the way then sat down to smoke?”
Oof nods. “Maybe not even that. He stopped before the big hill.”
“Exactly. Stopped before that big hill. So here’s the plan…”
Coach Saunders has been around the block. He’s been in the forces and he’s coached inter-prison sports teams for decades, but now he’s getting long in the tooth and wants an easy life. Not that the look on his grizzly old face would let on, mind.
Saunder is in before the cock can crow, ringing his bell and hollering for this lazy pack of swine to get on up and out, the weather’s fine and there’s ground to be covered, sweat to be sweated. He’s pouring water on the slow ones and spitting insults in their faces when they’re lined up in the yard. He gives Oof a whack in the belly and Oof goes “oof” and the boys all laugh.
Sanchez is the only one missing in action, he’s laid up in the infirmary with a gammy foot. Rumour has it the amount of time the inmates spend with the nursing staff is half the reason behind this new health push. Spend a little, save a lot, is Warden Glynn’s motto.
Soon enough the boys are being put through their paces and, same as yesterday, Saunders jogs the first few hundred yards then lets up. He settles down in a patch of grass under a shady tree, lights up, and watches his crew disappear over the hill. He’s had his pair of dogs sniff the boys before they set off so there’s no chance of temporary escape. He even had Oof roll up his sleeve to show what these two can do when they catch you.
Over the other side of the hill, Marl is whispering to his boys.
“Smiddy, Sooty, you run on. Saunders can’t see past his nose but if by chance he does come over he’ll wanna spot some shapes in the distance.”
“Aw but -”
“No buts, you run to the beach and back like good boys. We’ll rotate the runners each day, apart from Oof here whose ticker ain’t too clever. Besides, he’s good for digging.”
Oof grins and whips the spade out from his unders. He’s carved his food tray into a triangle and it’ll do for a start.
“Right boys. Let’s get at it.”
By the time Saunders is stretching his legs for a stroll up the hill, the boys have got a little overhang going where they can hide from the prying eyes of interfering coaches. The leather-faced old-timer peers at the horizon where he sees some dots getting smaller. He turns and goes back to his dogs.
Down below, Marl is whispering again.
“Grand job, boys. We’ll cut cards later for who’s on the run tomorrow, but for now let’s sit back and enjoy the peace and quiet.”
“Can’t we pop out for a bit, enjoy the sun?” asks one of the younger ones.
“That’s a mighty fine idea. Get caught by Saunders and screw the whole plan before we’ve even got going. You keep your ideas to yourself and we might just do this.”
No-one else has got any more big ideas.
Marl’s drawn up plans for a proper little lair: foyer, corridor, gaming room and all. He knows a thing or two about digging tunnels – it was tunneling out of the last joint that got him shipped to this island prison – and reckons all it’ll need is a little skill and a lot of elbow grease.
Four days later and it’s all plain sailing so far.
Oof is a little peckish because he can only eat what’ll fit in his porridge bowl, since he transformed his lunch tray into a spade. The Baker brothers are getting a little edgy because they haven’t had a smoke in a while, on account of trading their stash for iron rods to hold up the main tunnel. A few of the others have made their own little sacrifices for tools too, spades, buckets and what have you.
But it’s all fine and dandy.
Saunders has let his dogs off the lead a couple of times but clever Marl spent his last few coins on some state of the art juice that conceals your natural odour. He could only get his hands on a couple of cans but by his reckoning when they’re further along they’ll be able to scrimp on that expense because dogs can’t smell through twenty feet of dirt too well.
Two weeks into the running programme and the boys have done it.
Oof’s lost twenty pounds and feels like a new man. The Baker brothers have given up for good and they’ve never breathed better in all their days. Even Sanchez joined in near the end, doing the easier tasks like cleaning the spades and covering the hole at the end of the day, and he says getting the blood flowing round his foot again’s done it a world of good. And Marl’s been trying to catch sight of the back of his head in the little mirror above the sink. He’d swear all this exercise has got his hair growing again at the crown.
All in all the boys have never been in better shape.
So, they’re shaking hands and patting each other on their aching backs and getting dirt all in their hair as they stoop to get into the main chamber on grand opening day. They have a sit around and play some cards to celebrate their victory, but the light’s none too good and everyone suspects everyone else of cheating. The game doesn’t last long. Then the runners are back and it’s time to call it a day anyhow.
In the Warden’s office Saunders is laid back in a padded chair with one leg folded over the other. The expensive cigar in his fingers is burning nicely and if his nose hadn’t been shot to pieces by mustard gas he’d be telling you it smelled real good.
“I’m impressed with them, Warden. Thought they’d be another week at least, but every one of them’s lost weight and gained muscle. We’ve hit our targets and then some.”
Over the other side of the mahogany table, Warden Glynn’s looking especially pleased with himself.
“I think that’ll do for the ‘running’ programme then, Saunders. Getting them to dispose of all those old books for free and sneaking vitamins into the gruel were crafty ideas if I say so myself, but getting you in for this one is the best yet. You’ve earned that, you take a good drag.”
Saunders does as he’s told. The ceiling’s beginning to collect smoke and he feels like he’s made it to the exclusive gentlemen’s club he’s always dreamed of. Then Glynn offers him a glass of the good stuff and he knows for sure.
“Yessir, fill her up now.”
The two men clink their glasses and take a long sip.
“Now Saunders, let’s see if we can’t work how we’re going to afford to give you a permanent contract. I could do with a right hand man.”
“Easy, sir. I been selling the boys in Block H cans of tap water to conceal their scent from Sparks and Rosie. As long as your plumbing holds up I reckon we’re good for cash. Oh and I’ve started a new hygiene programme with the boys, hope you don’t mind my being so forward.”
Glynn shakes his head and the two old men chink glasses again. Meanwhile, down the corridor and around a few bends two inmates are deep in conversation long after lights out.
“I ain’t primpin’ myself up like some old doll on her way to Sunday service every time Saunders calls round.”
“Quite right, Oof. So here’s the plan…”
Illustration by: Cait Maloney