Pirate Ship

By Mark O’Flynn

Lionel has emphysema. This might be the most serious of his problems, but it certainly isn’t the only one. Compounding this is the fact that he receives little or no treatment for his condition, but is subject to a fair degree of indifference. It’s death by a thousand cuts. This is because Lionel is in gaol and being in gaol means that medical intervention is not high on anyone’s list of priorities, the prevailing attitude being suck it up.

Lionel is an old man with a long sentence. It’s likely, if not inevitable, that he’ll die in gaol. He’s been in so long he’s become part of the furniture, office pre-fabricated industrialised furniture, plastic moulded chairs and so on. All made with very cheap labour costs. This story is about Lionel clearing his desk, so to speak. He’s got a lot of time on his hands. It’s how one deals with time that determines how well – or otherwise – people in Lionel’s situation cope with gaol. Gaol is Lionel’s home. Who are we to dictate how someone behaves in their own home? This argument obviously has more than one side.

Lionel uses his time well. As well as can be expected for an old man with emphysema. Lionel buys matchsticks on the buy-up, a system whereby inmates can purchase small delicacies and items not provided by the powers that be. This would include tins of tuna, lollies, deodorant and so on at a price far dearer than I pay for my tins of tuna and lollies. The buy-up also used to include tobacco (White Ox) and matches, before they were banned, hence Lionel’s emphysema, for apart from being ‘home’ for so many people it is more pertinently a work place for others, the powers that be. (Not a home at all. Probably dangerous to think of it as home). Hence the edict: No smoking. They are cutting off at the pass any potential lawsuits under the guise of a health initiative. However, this is a political expediency, and the argument is also beside the point.

Lionel buys matches. Big bags of them. As big as small pillows and probably as comfortable. He also collects what he can off the ground. Others also help out in this pursuit, perhaps for some reciprocal favour down the track. Clean, new matches by the bag load. Thousands of them.  Plus glue. Glue that he promises not to gum up any locks with. The glue is rationed out to him one small bottle at a time. Time, again.

One day a message comes for me to go see him in his wing which he shares with sixty other hardened fellows. Home. Emphysema prevents him from leaving the wing and coming to see me in Education with his request. So when I get a moment I wander up to find him waiting outside the officer’s station which has not advanced much beyond Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. Every cell door within view. Cameras all over the place. Privacy reduced to a minimum. The loss of privacy is a great sacrifice in gaol. Lionel is housed in a unit parochially called the old man’s unit. Whispering Pines. A unit for those inmates who want to avoid all the rough and tumble of life in the main gaol. Who want to do their own time. The criterion for being housed in the old man’s unit is to be aged forty five or over. Lionel has something he wants to send out on visits this coming weekend. He wants me to transfer it to the storeroom attached to the visitor’s section. Of course there is a process, a bureaucratic rigmarole which must be navigated before I can do this. Forms to be signed and witnessed and countersigned. Purchase of materials etcetera. I traipse back and forth, searching out the right people to sign these documents, which takes half the morning before I can take charge of what Lionel wants to send out. Eventually I stop at his cell door.

Come in, he says, but there’s no way I’m going in there.

Panting asthmatically, he enters the gloom and re-emerges under the weight of a model ship. A ship made entirely of matches. Even the masts. A ship’o’th’line, or a pirate ship about sixty centimetres long and fifty centimetres tall to the top of the highest mast. It’s about as big as a medicine ball or a substantial watermelon. As solid as all get out, even though it looks fragile. The scale is remarkable as is the detail. Smooth decking, rigging made of cotton, toilet paper sails intricately sewn. There are canons, an anchor, a bridge with a rudder wheel like a daisy, all made meticulously out of matches broken to the correct length. There’s even a miniature coil of rope on what I guess is called the poop deck. He hands it to me. It’s heavy. It’s beautiful. The craft is highly impressive. It’s hard to imagine the painstaking work that’s gone into it.

I have no idea how many matches are involved in the construction, but off the top of my head you’d have to say thousands. I ask Lionel how long it took him to build and he says about four or five months. Apart from the matches he’s bought, the used ones he’s gleaned and collected give the ship a patchy, burnt aesthetic. He tells me that his niece and nephew are coming this weekend to collect it. Why doesn’t he give it to them himself? I ask. He explains he can no longer walk that far to visits. His lungs.

My task, after collecting all the signatures, is to deliver the ship to where someone else will carry it out to visits on Saturday. It is so intricately made I’m amazed he entrusts me with it. He doesn’t know me from a bar of soap. But who else does he have to trust? It feels weird to walk through the gaol carrying a pirate ship. I take it along with the various authorisations to the designated storeroom. I explain what I’m doing to an officer so it’s all above board – no using the ship to pay some sort of debt, as sometimes happens, trading artwork for drugs, or some favour outside. The officer is not interested. In fact quite the opposite. He says, why don’t I accidentally drop it? Why don’t I accidentally stamp on it?

He unlocks the storeroom door, flicks on the light. I enter. Sitting on a shelf along one wall are all the items to be sent out this weekend, paintings and greeting cards mostly. Most prominent are – look at them – three other pirate ships, or ships’o’th’line, made entirely of matches. Cotton rigging. Toilet paper sails. Same design. As big as watermelons. One even has a little jolly roger at the top of one mast. The ships in turn have all previously been carried out to visits but no one has ever claimed them, so they were carried back here to gather dust in the dark of the storeroom. There are no nieces or nephews. If there ever were they’ve long given up coming to visit an old man with emphysema who’s in for murder. Does that detail make a difference? Should it? The nieces and nephews are an old man’s fantasy that someone still cares. Someone. Anyone. No one.

I place the ship, my burden, on the shelf with the others. The officer closes the door and locks it. Care factor zero. One day they’ll be accidentally stamped on, tossed out in some clean-up. It’s a matter of how one deals with the imposition of time. The little that is left and the wide expanse beyond.



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