Colin stepped out of the gate at Wandsworth prison. Although he was in his mid thirties, he looked older. Maybe it was the tattoos that covered his face, hands, neck and other parts of his body, that made him seem older. And as the prison gate slammed shut he stood there a moment feeling slightly bewildered, with his shoulders slightly hunched and his clothes looking dishevelled on his tall skinny frame. He took out a roll up from his tobacco pouch, lit it, and took a deep pull into his lungs. He then slowly started walking along the road.
After walking for about half an hour in an area he didn’t know, he walked into a café on Garratt Lane, a busy shopping road in Earlsfield. A few people looked up from their meals to stare at Colin as he sat down. Emma the part time waitress, who was an attractive, slim, 19 year old dance student, then approached him and stared at him coldly, instantly judging him because of the tattoos on his face.
“What would you like? Emma asked holding out a small note pad.
“Could I ‘ave egg, chips and beans?
Emma scribbled the order onto her pad, then turn on her heel to walk away.
Colin called after her, “A cup of coffee as well please love.”
Emma seemed to visibly freeze, then scribbled on her note pad again.
A couple of minutes later, Emma put Colin’s coffee onto the table.
“Thanks,” Colin said smiling.
A few minutes later Emma put Colin’s meal on the table and Colin said, “Thanks love.”
Emma appeared to freeze again, then she walked away.
“Could I ‘ave two pieces of bread and butter as well please,” Colin called after her.
“That will be an extra fifty pence,” Emma replied coldly.
“Thass alright,” Colin replied still smiling.
When Emma walked back behind the counter, she said to Ollie, the middle aged, fat, balding café owner, “Do ya see that mans face? Ow could you get tattoos all over yer face.”
“Its obviously what ‘e likes,” said Ollie.
“’E looks like a right weirdo,” continued Emma.
“Yeah, well. As long as ‘e pays for e’s food,” said Ollie, “E’s welcome.”
Emma scowled and said, “If this was my café, I wouldn’t serve ‘Im.”
Ollie said softly, “Yeah, well, e’s still a human being. Mans gotta eat, even if ‘e does look a bit odd.”
After walking aimlessly for about another twenty-five minutes, and not knowing where he was going, Colin was pleased to find Wimbledon Park. He walked around the edge of the large lake there, then went and sat on a bench overlooking the children’s play park. About fifty feet away, two mothers, Jane and Victoria were pushing their daughters Kate and Abbey, when Jane said quietly to Victoria, “That man on the bench is making me feel uncomfortable.”
“There’s bloody weirdo’s everywhere,” said Victoria.
Both the woman stared at Colin, then Jane said, “I think we should leave. You read about strangers and perverts in the paper everyday”.
After she’d spoken, Jane stopped the swing with her daughter Kate on, and Victoria said, “There’s no such thing as a safe place anymore.”
Kate, Janes’s daughter suddenly whined, “Mummy, why have you stopped pushing me?”
“We’re going honey,” Jane replied.
Kate then whined again, “But we haven’t been here long”.
“I’m sorry darling,” Jane replied, “But there’s a strange man over there.”
Victoria stopped pushing her daughter Abbey as well, and Abbey asked, “Are we going as well mummy?”
“Yes love,” Victoria replied.
Abbey then whined again, “Ol’ mummy, why do we have to go?”
“There’s a strange man over there,” Victoria replied, “And me and Jane don’t think its safe for us to be here.”
“Is the man a murderer?” Abbey asked excitedly.
“I don’t know love,” Victoria said, “But we’re going. We can play in Jane’s garden.”
The two women started lifting their daughters off the swings and Abbey moaned, “But mummy…There’s no swings in Jane’s garden.”
“Yes,” Victoria said sounding flustered, “But at least you’ll be safe there.”
Two police officers, Alan and Trevor approached Colin, who was laying on the bench in the park.
“Excuse me sir,” said Alan.
Colin opened his eyes and sat up, and Trevor the second policeman said, “This is a play park, not a place for dossing.”
“I was juss laying down for a while an’ gettin’ some fresh air,” Colin said.
“Well,” said Trevor, “We’ve had a complaint from one of the parents, saying you were staring at children.”
“What…Are you ‘aving a laugh,” Colin said, flushing red and slightly angry, “I ain’t staring at anyone. I juss got out of jail this morning. I’ve bin banged up in a little cell for three months an’ now I wanted to get some fresh air in a wide open space.”
Alan asked, “What were you in jail for?”
“Shop lifting,” said Colin, still slightly red, “I was homeless an’ starvin’, so I nicked a sandwich from a supermarket, but got caught.”
“Where do you live now?” Asked Trevor, the second policeman.
“Nowhere,” Colin repied, “I’m homeless again.”
Alan, who seemed the softer of the two officers, asked, “Didn’t they sort out somewhere for you to live whilst you were in there?”
“Nah,” Colin replied, “They tried to find me a hostel to be released to, but none of them would ‘ave me as I got into a fight and broke someone’s nose in a hostel five years ago, so none of the hostels would take me, cos I’ve got violence on my record.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Alan, slightly softening, “But you can’t stay here. This is a public park. People bring their kids here.”
“Yeah, well, like you said,” said Colin, “This is a public park, an’ I’m one of the public. I’m not a fuckin’ paedophile.”
“I’m not saying you are,” replied Alan, “But your appearance is frightening people.”
“What do you mean frightening people,” Colin said hurt and angry, “Ain’t people ever seen tattoos before.”
Alan sighed, then said, “This is a posh, wealthy area mate. I suggest you move on somewhere else.”
After looking for somewhere to sleep, Colin found an alleyway that lead to the back yard of a supermarket. There were some large wheely bins there and Colin took out several large cardboard boxes and flattened them to make a ground sheet and he laid down on them. After about thirty minutes he started dosing into a light sleep. He sat up startled though when the supermarket security guard shined a torch in his face.
“You better sling yer ‘ook mate,” said the security guard, “Your on private property.”
Colin rubbed his eyes and said, “I’m not disturbin’ anyone.”
“Your disturbin’ me,” the guard said arrogantly, “Now like I said…Sling yer ‘ook before I call the police.”
Colin slowly stood up and picked up the flattened boxes.
“And you can leave those boxes behind as well,” the guard said.
“I got them out of the bin,” Colin said slightly exasperated at the security guards attitude.
“Yeah, well,” continued the guard, “They’re private property. You got no right taking them out of the bin. Them bins belong to the supermarket.”
“But they’re rubbish.”
“Like I say,” said the guard, “You either leave ‘em behind or I call the police and get you nicked for theft.”
Colin ended up sleeping in an ally way beside a school and he woke up about 8 Am, then he walked round for a while then went into a chemist and bought toothpaste, a tooth brush, a wash bag, shampoo and soap. He then found a public toilet around the corner from Earlsfield train station and he locked himself in the disabled cubicle and washed in the sink.
About nine ‘o’clock he walked into the café that he’d been in yesterday. As he walked in, Emma the nineteen year old waitress looked at him and whispered to the café owner Ollie, “Face aches back”.
Ollie scratched his balding head and replied, “Yeah, well. You juss treat him the same as anyone else.”
“We’ll ‘e aint the same is ‘e? Look at ‘e’s face. Never seen anythin’ like it.”
Emma went to take Colin’s order. “What would you like?”
“Egg chips and beans please love.”
Emma scribbled on her pad and walked away, then Colin called after her, “Cup of coffee as well please love.”
Emma seemed to freeze, then scribbled onto pad. She then went behind the counter and said quietly to Ollie, “E’s quite polite though really ain’t ‘e?
“Juss cos ‘e’s got tattoos all over ‘e’s face, don’t mean that ‘e can’t ‘ave manners.”
“Well you know what I mean,” continued Emma, “Cos ‘e looks ‘orrible, you expect him to be ‘orrible.”
“For all you know, ‘e might be the nicest bloke you ever met.”
Emma scowled, “I wouldn’t go as far to say that.”
“You never know. ‘E might be a saint for all you know.”
“Ugliest flippin’ saint I’ve ever seen.”
Ollie smiled, “They say that beauties in the eye of the beholder.”
Colin was walking around late at night, exploring the area and making mental notes of possible places to sleep. As he approached the corner of a street, two policemen stopped him.
The policeman called Eddy said, “Excuse me sir, do’ya mind tellin’ me where you juss come from?”
“I’ve juss bin walkin’ round the streets.”
The second policeman George asked, “What in this area?”
Eddy then asked, “Know anythin’ about a lady ‘avin’ ‘er hand bag snatched?”
The second policeman George seemed the most suspicious of the two then asked, “Do’ya mind if we search you?”
Eddy then said, “A lady’s juss had ‘er hand bag snatched a few streets away. She ‘ad twenny-five in cash stolen an’ a mobile phone…You got any cash on ya?”
“yeah, about eighty quid. I got released from jail yesterday with ‘undred an’ ten quid. Two weeks dole money.”
“You juss got outta jail?” Eddy asked.
“What was you in for?” George asked, seeming to become more hostile.
“Shop liftin’. I stole a sandwich cos I was starvin’.”
“What about snatchin’ hand bags,” George continued, “Funny ‘ow a hand bag was snatched juss two minutes up the road, an’ you got out of jail yesterday.”
“Leave it out. I ain’t a hand bag snatcher. That’s not my style.”
George was starting to seem agitated, “Oh yeah. What is your style then?”
“Look man. I’ve still got eighty quid on me from my discharge payment. Why would I snatch a hand bag?”
“You tell me,” George continued, “Got a drug ‘abit at all?”
Colin sighed then said, “Listen man. I ain’t a junkie…I have a bit of puff sometimes, an’ like a drink. But its not the kind of thing you go snatchin’ hand bags over.”
“I half believe you,” said Eddy, “If I ‘ad tattoos all over my face, I don’t think I’d snatch a hand bag. Ain’t as if you wouldn’t be recognised is it?”
“Exactly,” said Colin, “I’m not that stupid.”
George still seemed hostile though and said, “The lady said she didn’t see the attackers face. He run up behind her, snatched the bag and carried on running.”
“Ah leave it out man. You don’t think its me do ya?”
“Listen,” said Eddy, “What we’re gonna do is drive the victim past in a police car and see if she can identify you. If she says it weren’t you, you can go. Are you alright with that?”
“Sure…I ain’t got nothin’ to hide.”
George said into his radio, “Alpha, two, zero. This is Charlie, one, nine. Are you still with the victim?
A policeman called Paul answered by radio, “Yeah, Roger.”
George continued, “We’ve got a suspect on the corner of Regis Street. Can you do a quick drive past with the victim and see if she can identify him?
“Sure,” said Paul, “Be there in a minute.”
Eddy the kinder policeman said to Colin, “The ladies gonna be driven past in a short while, an’ if you’re not identified you’ll be on you’re way.”
Colin nodded looking nervous, and moments later the police car rounded the corner and slowly drove past them, with victim staring at Colin. A minute later a radio message came through to George, “Charlie, One, Nine, the lady said that she can’t be certain as she didn’t see the robbers face, but he was about the same build and wearing similar clothes.”
“Thank you Alpha, Two, Zero,” George said into his radio, “Looks like we’ll ‘ave to bring ‘im in for questionin’. Send a van mate.”
The two policeman look at Colin, and Eddy said with a hint of sympathy, “Looks like we’ll ‘ave to bring you in for an interview.”
Colin seemed really pissed off, “I can’t believe this.”
“Ain’t you’re lucky day is it?” George replied slightly smug.
Colin was in a cell at the police station when the two police officers Eddy and George came in to search him.
“ We are goin’ to have to strip search you Colin,” said Eddy, “We’ve checked yer record an’ seen you’ve got previous for drugs.”
“Leave it out,” Colin protested, “I’ve only bin nicked for ‘arf ounce of puff before.”
“look, we’ve gotta strip search you,” said George slightly smug, I ‘ope you ain’t gonna give us any aggro or we’ll ‘ave to call for more back up an’ strip search you by force.”
Colin sighed, “Search me then. But it’s a waste of time. I ain’t got anythin’ on me.”
“Take your clothes off Colin,” Eddy said softly, “An’ when yer naked, squat.”
Colin was laying on the cell bed when the two police officers came back in. Eddy smiled and said, “Looks like its yer lucky day Colin.”
“Why, whats ‘appened?”
“There was another muggin’ quarter of a mile away, same description,” said Eddy, “A lady ‘ad her hand bag snatched shortly after we arrested you. We believe it was the same robber workin’ the area…We’re gonna let you go mate.”
“What, juss like that. Do I get an apology?”
“We don’t give apologees,” said George, “We pulled you in as part of our job. Yer lucky we’re lettin’ you go.”
“This is a fuckin’ liberty man. You’ve stripped searched me an’ banged me up for nothin’.
“What do your expect with tattoos all over yer face,” said George, “You’ve got jail bird written all over you.”
“So your judgin’ me cos I’ve got tattoos?”
“Look Colin,” said Eddy, the kinder of the two officers, “We’re juss doin’ our job. If you want to get outta here, I suggest you stop arguin’. We’ll take you to reception, give you back yer belongin’s an get you outta here.”
“Yeah, well. Its still a fuckin’ liberty if you ask me.”
“Well we ain’t askin’ you,” said George, “So juss shut it.”
Colin scowled, but didn’t reply.
It was Colin’s third day of freedom when he walked into the café for breakfast. Emma the teenage waitress faintly smiled as she saw him and quickly walked to Colin’s table. Colin smiled and said, “The usual love.”
“Egg, chips and beans?”
Emma scribbled on her pad and turned and walked away, then turned back to Colin again and said smiling, “Oh yeah. A cup of coffee as well.”
“yeah please,” smiled Colin.
Emma gave Colin’s order to the café owner Ollie, who seemed slightly surprised as he said, “You’ve changed yer tune a bit.”
“Whad’ya mean?” Emma asked.
“You seem to ‘ave suddenly taken a shine to him.”
Ollie smiled and said, “Yesterday you were callin’ him face ache, an’ today you looked like you couldn’t wait to serve him.”
Emma scowled and then lightened, “Well ‘e ain’t really as bad as ‘e looks. ‘E seems like quite an nice geezer really.”
“Like I said. Don’t judge a book by the cover.”
Emma brings Colin’s meal and he starts eating it. After he’d finished Colin took a local paper from the next table and as he flicked through it he came across a properties to rent page. He’s eyes lit up and he called Emma and said, “Can I borrow a pen love?”
“Course you can,” Emma said smiling and gave him a spare biro from her apron pocket.
Colin studied an advert and wrote the phone number on the back of his hand.
Colin entered a phone box and dialled the number he’d written. After a few rings a female called Janet picked it up and Colin said, “Allo.”
“Allo,” Janet replied.
“I’m phonin’ about the rooms for rent,” said Colin.
“Your advert says you take DSS without a deposit…Is that right?”
Janet laughed slightly, “Yeah, I’m not fussy.”
“Can I come and look at a room then?”
“There’s one thing,” Colin said slightly awkward.
“I’ve got tattoos all over my face…But I’m not a trouble maker.”
Janet laughed softly, “Thass alright. My ex husband was a tattooist. He left me this house in his will. I’m covered in tattoos as well. I used to be a hells angel.”
“Yeah. So I’m not worried about what you look like. I love tattoos,” Janet giggled and added, “I’m sure you look beautiful.”
Colin laughed slightly now relieved, “I’ll see at eleven then.”
Colin was just about to put the phone down and then realised he didn’t have Janet address. “Whats yer address?”
Janet giggled again, “Oh yeah, its 57 Replingham road. Its just near Southfields tube station.
Colin left the phone box smiling like he was on cloud nine.
An hour and a half later Colin came out of Southfields tube station and he stood a moment at the railings lining the kerb. He then asked a man passing by if he knew where Replingham Road was.
“Sorry mate,” said the man, “I’m not from this area.”
Colin then asked a teenage girl the same question.
The girl smiled and said, “Its just across the road. See the road sign,” she added pointing to the sign with Replingham Road on it.
“Oh yeah,” smiled Colin, “Thanks.”
Colin crossed the street and walked down the hill past the parade of shops and rang the doorbell of 57, which was a nice looking house in a terraced row. And the door was opened moments later by Janet, a middle aged, slim, blond woman, in tight jeans and a low cut tee-shirt that revealed lots of tattoos on her arms and a swallow bird above her right breast.
Janet smiled as she looked at Colin and said, “Wow, you really ‘ave got a lot of tattoos.”
Colin smiled and replied, “So ‘ave you.”
“Perks of being married to a tattooist,” Janet answered.
Janet then ushered Colin into her stylish and tastefully decorated house and they settled in the kitchen. She asked Colin if he wanted tea or coffee, and Colin replied, “coffee please.”
While the kettle was boiling Janet showed Colin the two bedrooms she was renting out. The third bedroom was hers. Colin said he’d love to have the biggest of the two spare rooms.
“Ok. Its yours,” Janet said smiling, and she told him he was the first to view it, and said she had three other appointments so far for later that day.
Whilst they were drinking coffee, Janet asked, “I don’t suppose you know any landscape gardeners? I wanna get my back garden done.”
Colin seemed startled a moment, then blurted, “I’m a landscape gardener.”
“Yeah…Well, sort of.”
“Whad’ya mean sort of?”
“Well, I’ve got a qualification in landscape gardening and horticulture.”
“Really?” Janet asked, “What college did you go to?”
Colin looked slightly sheepish and replied, “I did a twelve month course when I was in an open prison four years ago.”
Janet raised her eyebrows interested and said, “My husband was in prison. ‘E got five years for robbery when ‘e was a teenager. ‘E became an artist when he was in prison, an’ when ‘e got out he studied fine art an’ got a degree. An’ when ‘e was twenny-four ‘e got a grant from the Princes Trust, an’ ‘e bought some tattoo guns an’ ink etc, an’ ‘e started a business doin’ tattoos. First ‘e used to do it in peoples houses, then ‘e opened up a tattoo shop an’ ‘e expanded a couple of times, till ‘e had another two tatooists an’ a receptionist workin’ for him.”
Colin listened interested and asked, “Where is yer husband now?”
Janet felt a lump in her throat and tears sting her eyes, “’E died two years ago. ‘E got hit by a speed boat when ‘e was swimmin’ in the sea when we were on ‘oliday in Jamaica.”
“I’m really sorry,” Colin said genuinely.
“’E was only forty-two,” Janet continued, “I miss him so much.”
Neither of them spoke for a moment, then Janet quickly cheered up and said, “If my husband could turn ‘e’s life around after prison, so can you. You could start yer own business as a landscape gardener.”
“Yeah,” said Colin, “I’ve thought about that for years, but I ain’t really ‘ad the chance. I’ve bin in an’ out of jail fer silly things, an’ each time I’ve bin released I’ve bin homeless.”
Janet smiled, “Well yer not homeless anymore, so you’ve got no excuses. Juss take things one day at a time,” They both pause a moment without speaking, then Janet said, “I’ve got a feelin’ that me an’ your are gonna get on really well.”
Colin just smiled and then Janet continued, “I’ve gotta do a bit of shoppin’. The supermarket is juss round the corner from the dole office. I could drop you there is you want an’ you could pick up a housin’ benefit form.”
“Thanks,” said Colin, “Thass really kind of you.”
“No problem,” Janet said smiling, and for the first time in ages both of them felt extremely warm and happy.