Tattoo Marks and Nails
by Alex La Guma
The heat in the cell was solid. It was usually hot in the cells, what with over one hundred prisoners packed in, lying on the concrete floor like sardines in a can or tangled like macaroni. But it was the middle of summer, and a week-end when prisoners are locked up early in the day until the following morning, there being only a skeleton staff of guards on duty; it was doubly, perhaps trebly hotter than usual.
The heat was solid. As Ahmed the Turk remarked, you could reach out before your face, grab a handful of heat, fling it at the wall, and it would stick.
The barred windows of the caserne were high up the walls, against the ceiling, and covered by thick wire mesh, its tiny holes themselves clogged and plugged with generations of grime.
We were all awaiting trial. The fact that all such prisoners were deprived of their clothes every time they were locked up in the cells did not make much difference. Naked bodies, or half-naked, only allowed the stench of sweat from close-packed bodies to circulate more freely.
“I know of only one place hotter than this,” said Ahmed the Turk, alleged housebreaker, assaulter and stabber. He smiled, flashing his teeth the color of ripe corn in his dark handsome face. “And I don’t mean Hell,” he added.
Around us were packed a human salad of accused petty-thieves, gangsters, murderers, rapists, burglars, thugs, drunks, more brawlers, dope-peddlars: most of them by no means strangers to the cells, many of them still young, others already depraved, and several old and abandoned, sucking at the disintegrating, bitter cigarette-end of life.
Now and then pandemonium would reign: different men bawling different songs, others howling or talking at the top of their voices, just for the sake of creating an uproar, others quarreling violently and often fighting. Here and there parties crouched over games of tattered packs of hand-made or smuggled cards, draughts played with scraps of paper or chips of coal as counters on boards scraped on the floor.
Pandemonium would abdicate for a while when the guard reached the cell door on his rounds around the section and shouted through the peephole in the iron-bound door.
I wiped sweat from my face with a forearm and said: “You were saying something about a place hotter than this.”
“Ja,” replied Ahmed the Turk. “Wallahi. Truly.”
“And where would that be?” I asked. “On top of a primus stove?”
“No man,” Ahmed replied. “In the Italian prisoner-of-war camp by Wadi Huseni in Libya. I was mos there during the War.”
At the other end of the caserne, The Creature, so named after some fantastic and impossible monster of the films, and his gang were persecuting some poor wretch who had arrived that morning. The man, not as smart as others, not able to catch the wire, know the ropes, had been locked up with not even an undershirt on his body. He cringed, stark naked, before The Creature and his henchmen.
The gang-leader, and incidentally cell-head by virtue of his brutality and the backing of equally vicious hangers-on, was pointing at the poor joker’s bare chest on which something colorfully gaudy had been tattooed, and snarling above the other noises in the cell: “Listen, you jubas, there’s only one tattoo like that in the whole blerry land, I bet you . . ."
“What’s that basket up to?” I asked.
Ahmed the Turk stuck a crippled cigarette-end between his lips and struck a split match expertly on the wall. “Going to hold a court, I reckon,” he said, blowing smoke. “Never liked these—prison courts.”
A common occurrence in prisons was the “trial,” by the most brutalized inmates, of some unfortunate who might have raised their ire by bootlicking a guard, or rightly or wrongly accused of giving evidence against, squealing on, his fellow prisoners, or having annoyed them in some other way. Mock courts, much more dangerous than real ones, were held in the cells and "sentence” meted out.
There had been the “case” of a prisoner who had given offense to a cell-boss and his gang. It had been said that he had complained of them to a guard, an unforgivable offense. The gangsters “tried” him, found him guilty and sentenced him to . . . he wasn’t told. That, as some sadistic refinement, they kept secret among themselves.
The terrified man died a hundred times over before, finally, unable to hold back weariness, he was forced to lie down to sleep. As he lay shivering in some unknown nightmare, a blanket was pressed over his head and face, and a half-dozen knives driven through the one in which he slept.
The next morning the guards found a dead man wrapped in a bloody blanket. No trace of blood on any of the rest of the packed humanity in the cell. There was no sign of a knife. Nobody had a knife, despite searches. The prison inquiry revealed nothing.
“Dammit,” I said, taking what was left of the butt from Ahmed. “Hell, that rooker just come in. They got nothing on him.”
“Maybe he done something to them outside,” the Turk reckoned. He added, “There was a court at Wadi Huseni, too.
“Forget them,” he advised, but he was listening to what The Creature was yelling at his gang and the grovelling victim. Then he smiled at me again.
“I was telling you about the P.O.W. camp by Wadi Huseni. Pally, there it was hot. Yellow sand and yellow sky. Man, just sand and sky and some thorn bushes, maybe. And the sun.
“I was in the Colored Corps, mos, during the War. Lorry driver. Well, some blerry Eyeties supporting the Germans captured us at the time of the Rommel business. So they take us to this camp. A square of barb-wire fence with guards walking round and round it all the time. It was full of our men, Aussies, English and others. And the sun, chommy. Burning, boiling, baking, frying, cooking, roasting.
“The Eyeties lived in tents near the prisoners’ camp. We, we had no shelter, nothing man. They fixed up a shelter with sailcloth for the sick and wounded. The rest had to do what they could. Understand?”
Ahmed the Turk grinned. “You call this hot, chommy? Pally, we used to cut slices off the heat, put them on our biscuits and make toast.”
I laughed, and wiped some more moisture from my nose. Ahmed the Turk smiled again and scratched himself under his once-gaudy, now grimy and sweat-stained shirt which he had managed to hang onto since he’d come in. He never got out of that shirt.
The Creature was yelling, ". . . Don’t lie, you basket . . . We know . . . Hear me. I said somebody chopped my brother, Nails, in the back with a knife . . . In the back, don’t I say? . . . Over some blerry goose. Nails’ goose, right? . . . The whore . . .”
“The Creature’s saying up big likely,” Ahmed the Turk said. “His brother, Nails. Just a big mouth like The Creature is, he was. But he had a nice girl, anyway.”
“. . . Couldn’t say his name before he died . . . But that he had a dragon picked out on his chest, pally . . . a dragon, right? . . . Maybe like the one you got.”
“It wasn’t me,” the naked prisoner babbled.
“Did you know his brother, Nails?” I asked.
“Yes, man,” Ahmed the Turk replied. “Seen him around. Nails, tattoos, courts.” He laughed. “Listen, chommy, it reminds me of that court in Wadi Huseni that time.
“Like I was saying, man, it was hot, hot, hot. Water reshun, one tin cup a day. Hot. Hot. Hot.
“After some time, the water supply runs down and the Eyeties are only handing out half-a-cuppy a day. Man, half-a-cuppy. Food they could keep. Biscuits and sardines. But water, man. Water.”
Ahmed the Turk sighed and flicked a rivulet from his brow. The water bucket in the cell itself had just been emptied of the last mouthful and the crowd around it was growling and snapping like mongrels.
The Creature was laughing. It was he who had collared the last of the water, and he was laughing merrily at the others. Then he turned back to his “prisoner.”
“. . . Right in the back, hey? . . . Nails said we’d know you by that dragon on your chest . . . Well, we’s got you now, pally . . .” He laughed again, the sound coming from his throat like the screeching of a hundred rusty hinges.
“I don’t know nothing from it,” the man whimpered. “True as God, ou pal.”
The Creature went on laughing.
“I was telling about the water shortage,” Ahmed resumed. “Yes, man. Half-a-cuppy a day in the middle of that seven kinds of Hell.”
I said, “You reckoned the tattoo stuff reminded you of something.”
“I’m coming to that, man,” he said. “Listen. After a while it got so everybody was getting pretty desperate for water, hey.
“Then some joker comes up with a scheme. He got a pack of cards, old, dirty, cracked, but still a full deck. ‘Let’s play for the water reshun,’ this joker say. ‘Half-a-cup of water is the limit, and winner takes the lot. Anybody want to play?’”
Ahmed the Turk smiled. “There was helluva lot of jubas in that camp wasn’t going to take any chances with their water in a card game. Understand? No, pally. They stuck to what they had. but there was some other desperate johns willing to take a chance.
“Further, later on there’s quite a clump in the game when the Eyeties have handed out the water. Well, somebody’s got to win a card game, don’t I say? And one of the boys has a merry old time with nearly two pints of water that he wins.
“Next day the joker with the deck is ready for a game again, quick as the water was handed out. Another rooker wins this time.
“Well, pally, for a couple of days different johns are winning water, and a lot of birds lose their rations. But they are still willing to play.
“Then all of sudden, the luck of the joker who owns the deck changes, and he starts to win the whole pot every day, day after day. Oh, he has a time awright. And with all the losers looking on, likely.
“Dammit, he had water so he could use some of it just to pour over his head like a shower bath, mos. And never parted with a drop of water to the other burgs. There are jokers going crazy for an extra drop in that camp. But our friend just has himself a grand time winning water from a lot of squashies.
“Until the other johns start to think about it.”
Ahmed the Turk laughed again and scratched under his shirt. He went on: “Maybe they start reckoning it’s funny for this joker to keep on winning all the time. Further, these johns are getting more and more desperate, having no water.
“So, it happens, after the joker had won another game and is pouring his winnings into a big tin he’d got for the purpose, one of the gang, a big Aussie say: ‘Look, cobber. Let’s take a look at the deck, hey?’
“The joker looks up at the Aussie, while he is pouring cups of water into his tin, and reckons: ‘What deck, hey? What about the deck? What for you want to see the deck? The deck’s okay, man.’
“‘Let’s see the deck, cobber,’” the Aussie says. A big boy, like most of those Aussies are. And everybody else is quiet now, looking at the joker, some of them grinning through their beards and their dusty and broken lips.
“Well, ‘The hell with you,’ the joker reckons and starts to get up. The next thing, the Aussie lets go with a fist as big and hard as a brick.”
Ahmed the Turk grinned, showing his teeth, and rubbed his jaw, brushing sweat from it and wiping the moist hand on the front of his shirt. At the other end of the caserne, The Creature and his gang were still worrying the naked man, like a pack of dogs with a rat.
“What about the tattoo marks?” I asked. I was beginning to eye him with suspicion now.
“I’m coming to that, man,” he replied, scowling across to where The Creature and his inquisition were in session. “That pig . . . Anyway, pally, so this Aussie lets blow with his fist.
“Further, when this joker wakes up, he is flat on his back on the sand with his shirt off, and what’s more, he is being held down like that by some of the boys. And looking up, he can see this big Aussie standing over him, smiling and fanning out the deck of cards in his big hands. The joker can’t make a move with the men holding him down.
“Then further, the Aussie says: ‘Cobber, playing with marked decks, hey? Cheating your pals out of water, hey? Well, cobber, we sort of held a court martial right here, in your—er—absence. Well, cobber, the court has found you guilty, and we’re about to carry out the sentence, cobber.’ And the Aussie laughs, likely, and everybody else laughs. Except the card joker, naturally. So they carry out the sentence.”
“What was it?” I asked.
Ahmed the Turk scowled. “Why, this Aussie has got a kind of a knife made from a six-inch flattened nail. And he uses this to well—not actually to do some tattooing on the joker’s chest—but really some carving.
“Ja, man. They write it on his chest with that long nail, deep into the flesh so it would never go away, while he’s struggling and screaming: Private So-and-so, a Cheat and a Coward. And the joker got to carry those words in scars around with him long as he lives.”
I gazed at Ahmed the Turk. Then, “Jesus,” I said. “What happened to the joker afterwards?”
Ahmed shrugged. “He escaped. He couldn’t stand it, living among those other P.O.W.’s after that, I reckon. Maybe the basket was collecting that water to get away across the desert, in any case.
“Anyway, soon afterwards, he’s gone. Got through the wire somehow, and gone he is.” Ahmed the Turk paused. “That’s why I said this court of The Creature, and Nails, and tattooing reminded me also of Wadi Huseni.”
“Ahmed,” I asked him. “What was the joker’s name.”
“I forget now.”
He was gazing across the muttering, heaving, writhing tangle of perspiring prisoners to where the gang was holding their “court.”
“Turk,” I said again to him, quietly. “I never did, and nobody here ever did see you with your shirt off, have they?” I was looking at his sweat-stained shirt.
He looked back at me and grinned. “Hell, man. Why should I take it off? Might get pinched. Besides, it isn’t as hot here as it was in that Wadi Huseni camp, mos.” He looked again across at the court. “Never did like these prison trials,” he muttered. Then shouted: “Creature, you pig! Why don’t you leave the poor basket alone? Can’t you see he’s . . . scared?”
The Creature looked across at us, his mob flanking him, the poor naked john grovelling and crying. Then he laughed and turning away from his victim, began picking a path among the packed prisoners, towards where we squatted. The gang trailed after him, ignoring the naked man. He couldn’t get away, could he? The noise in the cell had dropped to an apprehensive mutter.
The Creature made his way across, kicking bodies and legs out of his path, swearing at the impeding jumble of humanity.
He was half naked, wearing a pair of filthy pajama pants, and over it a pair of khaki shorts confiscated from another unfortunate. A ludicrous sight, yet dangerous as a rabid dog. His face was disfigured and reminded one of a tangled knot of rope, with some of the crevices filled in, topped by a blue, badly shaven skull. He came up, sneering with rotten teeth.
Then he stopped, looking at Ahmed the Turk, and laughed.
He said, “Turk, I been sizing you up a long time, mos, Turk. Ou Turk, you reckon mos you a hardcase.”
Ahmed the Turk laughed at him. The Creature breathed hard into his big chest, and laughed again in return, so that the rope-knot face squirmed and quivered like some hideous jelly.
“Turk,” he went on. “Turk, somebody chopped my brother, Nails, in the back. Don’t I say? Only thing poor ou Nails knew about the juba he had something picked out, tattooed on his chest, man. A dragon, poor ou Nails said.
“Well, Turk, me I been looking for this pig. Don’t I say? When I get him, me and my men going to hold court, inside or outside, ’cording to where we get him.”
Ahmed the Turk grinned. “What the hell it’s got to do with me?” There was a lot of sweat on his face, and he wiped it away, leaving a dirty smear.
The Creature eyed him. “Turk, you been saying up a lot since you come in here . . . Okay, youse a big-shot, mos . . . But I been hearing things around, ou Turk. I been hearing things like you was messing around ou Nails’ goose, also. Don’t I say? Okay. Awright. Maybe it’s just talk, hey?”
He laughed again, and then went on. “Okay, Turk, youse a big-shot, mos, outside.” Then he repeated more or less, my own recent request of Ahmed the Turk. “Come to think about it, Turk. Nobody seen you here with that shirt off, hey? Why don’t you take off your shirt, Turk? It’s mos hot here, man. Don’t I say? Or maybe you heard outside there was word around I was looking for a juba with stuff tattooed on his chest. A dragon, maybe, Turk? Why don’t we see you with that shirt off, Turk?”
Ahmed the Turk licked moisture from his lips. He said, “The hell with you.”
“Turk,” The Creature said. “Turk, my boys can hold you while we pull off the shirt. Just as you like, ou Turk.” The gang edged nearer, surrounding us. Ahmed the Turk looked at The Creature and then looked at me. His face was moist.
Then he laughed, and pulled himself up from his cramped position.
“Awright, all you baskets,” he sneered, and unbuttoned his shirt.