August 13, 2013

An arrangement too good to last

A FEW YEARS BACK, when I was visiting the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, I came across two men working on a small fishing boat down at the town wharf.

Dougie was in his mid-30s, friendly, open-faced, easy to talk to, and polite. Like many Saint Helenians, he added “sir” when speaking to foreigners.

He was about to add some resin to the bottom of a leaking bait box.

“Do I have to add fiberglass, too?” he asked me.

I had a look and thought it really didn’t matter what he did because the resin wouldn’t stick for long. He really needed epoxy resin, not polyester, the kind he was using. More importantly, he should first have cleaned out the water, oil, and grease before applying the resin. In fact, the right way to do it was to grind down to bare, clean fiberglass. But I didn’t tell him that. No point. He didn’t have a grinder, anyway.

As I watched him and his friend working on the boat we talked about many things, including the magic of the GPS satellite navigation system, which, his friend said, was now even installed in cars in England.

“It tells you which way to go,” he said.

They both paused to consider the impact of that statement. Everybody on St. Helena knew which way to go without the help of satellites in the sky. But it was magic still, they agreed.

Just before I said goodbye it occurred to me that Dougie was wearing a bright orange T-shirt with the large black initials “HMP” on the back. Her Majesty’s Prison.

“What for?” I asked.

It turned out that he’d been found guilty — wrongly, he asserted — of beating up his girl friend. Both of them were drunk at the time. “I gotta drink problem,” he admitted. He added that it was a disease. If you were an alcoholic like him, your body made its own alcohol, he explained.

On St. Helena island, relatively harmless prisoners like Dougie were temporarily released to do some gainful work of their own, rather than rotting in the tiny town jail, and he had been released in the care of his friend.

“I’m responsible for him,” his friend said proudly.

“I hope he doesn’t make trouble for you,” I said.

“Oh no, sir,” said Dougie earnestly. “We understand each other, sir.”

And so I left them and went to find my wife. We understood each other, too. She did the shopping while I loafed around with the guys on the wharf. It was a most satisfactory arrangement, I thought. But, of course, it was too good to last.

Today’s Thought
Whilst we have prisons it matters little which of us occupies the cells.
— Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists

“I’m sorry to say, Mr Jones, that the last check you sent me came back . . .”
“Well, what a coincidence, doctor — so did my sciatica.”

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