Denied his Dignity – a short story
It’s the one useful thing a killer could do, but no one understands.
Alone in his cell he sat sprawled in front of the television. The picture showed a thin weak figure, a hospital patient propped up in a plain, clean bed, bathed in weak winter sunlight. The man in the bed waited for the other people there to leave then someone bent over him and said something. The man nodded and a pink drinking straw was passed into his mouth. A woman stepped forward and took his hand. She sat on the edge of the bed, a kindly looking woman, well-covered but not overweight. She listened to the man for a moment, as if he was asking her to pick up something at the corner shop while she was out, but she did not move.
The prisoner in his cell squeezed the remote again, but still it wouldn’t work and he had to imagine the sound. The camera focussed on the patient’s face which was turning to one side, as if he had fallen into a deep sleep. The woman got up, leant forward and kissed the man on the forehead. She waited for a moment then, as she turned towards the door, drew a handkerchief from her sleeve.
It was a neat death. No struggling, no violence and there appeared to be no noise either, no fuss. He thought about a previous death.
It was, said the judge, one of the worst with which he been confronted. Charlie – he’d never been Charles – Charlie remembered the struggle. Even when he had overcome the girl, who was half his size, even when it was obvious that he had overwhelmed her completely, she had screamed still and struggled and pleaded with him. He had enjoyed that bit.
Then she had called him names, insulted him, and screamed at him again and again. He had not remembered much after that until he realised that he had a body on his hands. He had seen the papers before he was arrested and the pictures of men in white overalls with their feet wrapped in plastic. It was obvious that they had gathered together the bin liners, clearing up the mess he had left behind. He shuddered now at the thought of that night, driving himself to collect up the warm bits and stuff them awkwardly into the same black plastic bags that had also refused to cooperate, inconsiderately flapping about in the dark.
Only when he was no longer a threat to other people would he be considered for release. The judge had made this clear ten years ago. Fifteen to go? Not even half way there yet. No way out and then he thought of the man on the television. Would he have to get like him before he was released?
He had some grey hair now and a gut. What would go next? He thought of the man in the bed and his frail arm, shaking as the tube was passed between his teeth.
So, what was this place where they let you go and top yourself? He couldn’t ask the others, his mates, but there was the chaplain.
There was this organisation, in Switzerland, called Dignity, something like that. When you were on the way out you got someone to take you there where it was legal to help people finish themselves off. Neat. No fuss, no bother, no mess. He thought again of the black plastic billowing about in the dark.
Again he raised the matter with the chaplain. The little man with dark hair listened carefully. Charlie insisted and the chaplain returned with the word from the prison authorities. No way; fifteen to go.
For the first time in his life Charlie started to dream. He found himself awake in the dark and one of his cell mates muttering at him to let him get some kip. He’d been trying to fill the plastic bags again, but he couldn’t find all the bits and then one of the bags had a hole in it. As soon as he picked it up there were butcher’s pieces everywhere and he had to put it down and start all over again.
“Lot a bleedin’ use you are, keeping us awake.” His cell mate spat out the words in the dark. “Prat.”
He tried again with the chaplain, but the answer was the same.
Why wouldn’t they take any notice? Save them money it would. Someone had mentioned a figure, fifty grand, five hundred grand a year, just to keep him banged up. Then there was the picture again of the man in the bed. If he had to get like that to get out, there’d be no point; there’d be people all around him controlling him, telling him what to do. No, he didn’t want that, no way. No, and anyway, it was the idea of his being able to take control again, even if it was only his life this time, that was what really appealed to him.
The prison visitor was unsure but said she’d find out and returned with some forms. She helped him complete them and then he waited weeks for a reply.
Apart from the matter of his not having a life-threatening condition, the Swiss authorities would not allow him into the country. He had criminal record. The British police would not be allowed to escort him across Switzerland and the Swiss police had no authority to hold him once he had entered their country, except to deport him. With his criminal record he would certainly not be allowed to take himself to the clinic.
In Britain, the visitor was clear about this, in Britain anyone who tried to help him would risk prosecution, would risk prison, and she wondered whether there was anyone who loved Charlie enough to take that risk.
Charlie had once thought about getting some stuff from the prison infirmary but by now he realised that he was being watched very closely. A long time ago he had seen a film with some daft title, One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He remembered the big Indian and the Indian’s friend in convulsions beneath his weight and the pillow. The violence of the struggle repulsed him even now.
Charlie thought about his right to die. What did they want to keep him alive for? He remembered pictures of the girl’s family calling for his life and angry headlines. He knew too that life outside could be very dangerous. They had told him about blokes out there who looked out for people like him. Settle things up. Some families would pay to set people after him. He thought again about his fifteen years of safety, inside.
Save them money, give the girl’s people, what did they call it, closure? Let him have his life back, just for a moment. Couldn’t they just leave a little pill in the drawer in his cabinet? Let him give them back a little bit of justice?
One of his cell mates returned.
“What yer looking like that for? Not still on about that bloke on the tele, topping himself?” The man shook his head while his cell mate turned away. “Bleedin’ prat.”