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A master storyteller with an ear, an eye and a voice that should be the envy of many men with weightier reputations.
Daniel Day-Lewis
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The Glass Cage

John Healy
Status: being funded
Publication Date: TBC
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A master storyteller with an ear, an eye and a voice that should be the envy of many men with weightier reputations.
Daniel Day-Lewis

The second volume of memoir by John Healy, published thirty-seven years after his first: the ‘savage masterpiece’ that was The Glass Arena.

With imaginative prose and startling imagery, Healy takes us on a journey where he first works in a late-night cafe serving whores, pimps, druggies, window-ledgers, handbag snatchers, narks, pervs, ponces, halfwits, old shoulder rollers, broken-down bouncers and the odd psychopath. Situated at the dim end of the counter at the furthest corner from God’s light on earth, he plans his escape and ends up in a world more treacherous and dangerous than he could ever have imagined. In this world of middle-class literature, living hand to mouth, he writes The Grass Arena and is suddenly propelled into a place far superior to his own: a place he both desired and feared.

To become suddenly famous in an unfamiliar world of power and privilege was completely disorienting. He finds himself thrown into unpredictable situations that call for a tact where he was more used to situations where people achieved their aims through superior brutality.

The Glass Cage is an unrepentant account of a life few of us could imagine. A worthy sequel to The Grass Arena, it is John Healy’s crowning achievement.

In ancient Sparta some say it was decreed that male babies born with a flaw, making them unfit for military service, should be taken by their mothers at dawn to the temple of Athena where a priest, after blessing the child, would put it into one of the jars situated on the temple forecourt. As the sun rose, the child already deformed would begin to whimper then cry, then scream as the rays of the sun intensified the heat in the glass jar.

All day long under the blazing sun the mothers would have to stand listening to the screams as the sun slowly roasted their crippled child. Hoping for a miracle the mothers would pray fervently to the gods that they might relent. But the child’s fate had already been decreed by the same gods long ago.

When at last night fell, the screams would stop, then the priest would allow the mothers to take their dead infants, those that had not been vaporised by the sun, out of the sacred jar for burial. 

 

Chapter 1

It was unwise to show too much concern 
there were limits to the feelings you could express


The mattress was tattered and stained and a good two feet shorter than the iron slats it was supposed to cover, but it would do. It would have to.

It was not the first time I had witnessed the inside of a prison cell or lain on an institutionalised bed. I had many times been confined within their grey walls back in the day when prisons had begun tightening their wire. But this is the first time I’ve ever been afraid as I wait behind the iron door. Compared to the past, though, my reason for being here is negligible. My crime? Non-payment of a £50 fine imposed thirteen years ago under the medieval vagrancy laws. They had found my door. I was arrested yesterday morning on a committal warrant, sentenced to a day, and would be released this morning at dawn.  Since I won’t be walking the yard under a tangle of iron surrounded by barbed wire, perhaps I was taking it too seriously because from one point of view the whole episode was rather humorous. Yet I was finding it hard to come to terms with it all. Quite apart from the shock of being arrested again after so long and the slight disruption to an otherwise humdrum routine, there was the recurring déjà vu laced with a touch of paranoia.

Even one hour is a long time in prison. Anything could happen. I could stare at the walls if I chose but I could not be sure when I might be thrown into a situation where I would say the wrong thing to the wrong screw and find myself in trouble. I wanted to avoid that kind of trouble for I feared that, if I clashed with authority again, I would lose control of my emotions when I remembered how I had lost some of my front teeth in a cell just like this to a Chief Officer’s boot over a petty infringement.

Yet that wasn’t quite it either, for these few hours one should be able to bear any amount of verbal abuse, caustic comments, or even a few silent slaps. The last thing to worry about is offended dignity when confronted by a mugger with a blade in an alley. No, the real worry lay in this feeling: a feeling that I hadn’t moved on since my last stay here coupled with the fear that I now perhaps never would. I was one of the children with longing eyes who had been locked out in back yard isolation among a tyranny of brick walls who grew up trying to avoid the swing and the whine of the belt my father swung while keeping pain to an inward scream. But I was not very resilient and, when my madness got out of control, I made the mistake of shouting it out and went to prison for it where I lay on my bunk listening to the screams of the punished echoing cruelly from the cells below.

Since the age of fifteen I had lived on the street as a vagrant alcoholic, termed by police and courts alike a wino, the most contemptible amongst the contemptible since there weren’t any good winos because good gets lost among the bad and by the time you notice it’s too late.

In a world where only alcohol had meaning, we measured time by the bottle, unlike normal beings who measure time by the clock. It was becoming harder and harder to find forgiveness and kindness we did not ask for, for we knew it would not be given. This way of life  destroyed pity, smiles were seldom offered, we accepted to be set apart in alley ways and parks.

But at times a wave of sad yearning rose up in me for times that were past, I was strong then I could endure I could resist the urge to hide in corners. But it took a long time to find my way: the various tensions were far too complex.

At night we searched for the most secret hiding places. But wherever we hid, when it was very late, they would come for you, making attempts at stealth but the bare boards on the landing failed to deaden footsteps. As you lay in the room which was never your own listening to the boards creak, waiting as they negotiated the rickety stairs you felt like a soldier engaged in a war that nobody knew about. In the breath-held silence faint sounds drifted up from a hollow in the stairwell:  your secret place had lost its privacy; security did not dwell in the rooms of the condemned. The night had become full of surly shadows, as you looked into the darkness and listened, all the uneasy moments of doubt were confirmed by a sinister creaking along with the board at the bottom of the stairs that snapped too loudly underfoot. While darkness seeped deeper into every corner of the room shadows continued to slither around the walls of the room as you listened for noises the other side of the door. Fear began to grow in the solitude at the approach of others as you waited to meet your fate in the anarchy of the night. You shifted silently on the frail boards, uncertainty made the air more restless, deceptive sounds disturbed the darkness. Was it the police or scavengers come for the lead on the roof? The police are not the only ones who thrive during darkness. A toss-up between two evils, though scavengers tend to be more reckless and dealing with them can have its own dark moments, at least they cannot arrest you.

So, you waited for whatever it was that coming for you out of the shadows: in abandoned houses things quickly turn to shadows. I can feel them moving tentatively around before decisions are made while the silence began to swell and brood until there was a mumbling of   instructions and fragments of advice, then the footsteps began again much firmer. They came with purpose now, the iron on their heels thumping and ringing on the broken boards that had not yet rotted; you could hear their heavy breaths. While you were almost on the point of choking from the held breath that was shuddering in your lungs.

I never thought they would find this skipper, laying in my corner each night I had ceased to worry about it. Until now, here in the dark of this room, which earlier had provided a certain sanctuary, the kids’ game of hide and seek had turned real, and as the footsteps continued to mount the stairs stopping every so often as their suspicions drew them here and there, you realised it was indeed the police. You longed to escape but the darkness clung, it hung like a shroud and would not allow you to move. Huddled on the floor of the threatened room, alone in the condemned house, cowering in the position strange footsteps had left you in. Fear came in an intake of breath and conveyed itself to the huge leaping shadows: Something in the trembling of a bannister interspersed with frequent silences was disturbing. 

The dog recognised the silence, the dog was possessed of cunning, as it listened for the sound of your breathing you feared you might never find anywhere safe again. You had become weakened in the stiff silence, and fear had thinned you out along with the dark whisperings and the panting eagerness of the dog as it bit the darkness, conjuring images that sprang at you in open wounds: flesh is no protection against fangs though the night might take the final bite as the cold bit into your feet.

Shadows on the wall suggest the moon is going down, and surprisingly in the darkening purple night there was a new softness in the air, sounds became distant, shadows became tender, less disturbing and began to reveal more. The footsteps had stopped and might never have begun, in the still room you listened but there was nothing just the cold silence of an old house. Everything had become motionless, in the still air hope was filling me up.

Since there was nothing of sufficient importance in this derelict building to warrant a sweeping search, I was determined to feel confident that things would fall back into place, that peace would return in all its stillness. With the hopefulness of innocence, I felt the intruders would never reach the attic where I lay, in fact the rats that had chewed through the wires in the cellar never got this far. I did not feel like bleeding for anyone tonight. The shadows had grown leaner and were eventually extinguished the intruders must have gone.  Rain beating gently against the broken windowpane had given me hope; no one likes to hang around in the rain.

All around the silence had thickened I was so quite I might not have been here the thought restored my circulation. The searchers could not have been sure, divided between looking and leaving with their heads held to listen they would have to be content with guesses. Though I’d heard no retreating steps I strained to listen but except for a piece of broken plaster falling from a wall causing terror for a moment the silence held: surely they had gone? In the contented silence all thoughts of a beating and time in prison had been lifted, relieve began to ease through my veins. But doubt was existing vaguely in spite of this I could not quite get it out of my head: Were they in fact gone or only resting from the first stages of their journey on the stairs? In this house in which even the silences are taking part, disappointment has become easier to bear. So I lay frowning at the strange silence I could not trust. Until shadows began reappearing on the wall and sounds came very faintly then more distinctly of a door opening, creaking in the silence below. Of course they hadn’t gone, my moment of hope had been illusionary, fear had encouraged me to deceive myself. The night had become anxious once more. 

Cops are inquisitive, their attention has been drawn, they have to look around, though their eyes do not always see further than others, their loud boots would continue to disturb the darkness, they would never go now. And even if they did, they would return through the last doorway for the last vagrant, nothing would deter them now, Article Four of the Vagrancy Act does not indulge in sentiment, its evil shadow covers everything. All around the darkness was hardening. The tangled shadows groping for balance were only treading more carefully over the thinner brittle boards as they came on stealthily through the smell of dry rot. It was the stench of all abandoned places which I had ignored before but which now became oppressive. The shadows could not have been more watchful. I could feel their resentment as they peered out of the darkness and resumed their normal shape. While their footsteps had begun once more to mount the narrow stairs they came on faster now as if making up for any delay. As the sound of those boots grew louder, I swallowed the lump in my throat. They were urgent firm and formal, unrelentingly they filled the air with fear. Trapped like an animal, hoping danger would pass, you waited in the interval before things began to happen. The cold was intense. It seeped through the cracks in the walls and lingered in the darkening room. Through straining nerves, between whispers and silences as the boards creaked, you could sense every inch of movement and detect the slightest tremor as they could also, and you knew that you must not tremble as you mentally shrank from that which was edging closer to you. Out of the darkness voices drew nearer they rose up stiff and blunt, from a lower floor vermin ceased darting along the skirting board in the presence of strange noises they were hushed.

As the cold in the damp room began to mingle with the darkness you crossed your arms firmly around you to stop your ribs from shaking but continued to shiver. Coughing was a comfort though it made an awful sound but their boots were thumping louder on the empty boards. By the ugly whispers spiralling up from the stairwell they had reached the second landing. When they reach the third, you’ll no longer be a person, more a bundle of rags, officially a ‘vagrant’, which can aggravate coppers. It doesn’t really matter: nothing could be done about that.

If you’re lucky you may escape a beating. The air was retreating from the room, the walls were threatening to close in, silence had descended on the landing, no sound but the creaking of an old house, you had become familiar with the least shudder, however you trembled a little at silence that did not result in an absence of sound, while everything had been absorbed into darkness. In the still-darkened room only fear was moving.  Shadows were pressing down while your own shadow was frail and pale scarcely visible among the bigger burlier shadows on the wall. You put out your hand to ward off those shadows but touched only darkness, for the shadows had grown angry and taken on fresh shapes.  Shadows were creating more shadows, snapping and snarling viciously at each other, swirling recklessly around. Everything was slipping from me as I lay against the darkness trying to interpret each movement and sound. Suddenly, deliberately discarding caution, the door which in the beginning had promised protection was wrenched open to reveal your helplessness. There was no longer any hope of being missed, in the ugly room you were left staring into darkness until pin pricks of bobbing light flashed a warning they reached out from the open door. They startled the shadows that were lolling in the corners until they shrivelled, changed colour, splintered round the edges and suddenly lost shape. 

Though a light patch of shadow appeared through a jagged crack in the boarded-up window which for a moment opened up the darkness. I was a little confused, dazed by so much movement I thought it was the sun. I might be saved by the sun, sunlight can make you acceptable if it wasn’t for the fact that vagrants smell in the sun. But it was only the pale shadow of a fading moon. Which intensified the loneliness as I eased up from a board that was numbing my hip: I have been cornered too long in one place. It’s hard to distinguish between substance and shadow, the night has almost exhausted itself.

Caught in this frenzy of exposure everything was suspect, even the darkness has been betrayed, split not by moonlight but by torches, though nothing could illuminate the vaster darkness. And behind the torches there were dark indistinguishable bodies. Former stealth had been replaced by thumping boots, the floor boards which torchlight made bigger were shaking. Suddenly out of the depths of darkness the attic was invaded and in torchlight they came on. They did not immediately leap forward, only their burly shadows began quivering more menacingly on the mould-speckled wall. I could hear them breathing very close while I was lying sideways clinging for some comfort to the darkness until increasing light gradually caused the darkness to turn its back on me. Then you saw suddenly you were on your own, you were insignificant, reduced to a thing, a bundle of rags that had been pitched on the floor which not even darkness could provide a refuge for now.

Then they came forward, no longer images grouped in grave shadows but tall, mauve, muscular forms erect with duty. Their presence commanded the room, everywhere was shaking as they aimed their torches angrily, angry as the snarling dog which was leading the pack. They burst in upon you to arrest you for vagrancy, the silver spike on their imperial helmets gleaming against the crumbling walls of the place that had been your home.

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