Death twitches my ear. “Live,” he says, “I am coming.”
~ Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro), Minor Poems, Copa
‘Jam tomorrow’ is the meme that gets us all through today. It is what makes us say to ourselves ‘five more weeks to the end of term’ as we prepare to face the lower Fourth one more time. It is what makes us clean the gutters of leaves on what may be the last sunny day of summer – when we would prefer to be lying on the beach. It is why we take on 25 year mortgages in the belief that one day it will be paid off and we can spend our money on ourselves.
Hope, belief in a sybaritic future stretching out before us; a future which will be better than the present.
One of the cruelest facets of a cancerous sarcoma such as I have, is not that is one is placed on a ‘whole life tariff’. It is that this whole life tariff contains endless reviews. Reviews that contain a glimmer of hope. Hope that there may be a better life ahead. If I could be sure that there was not another summer ahead of me – do you think I would chose to spend the day clearing the gutters? What matters it if they are blocked next winter? Not one jot. Carpe Diem. I can devote myself to selfish pleasures. I shall lie here and keep watch on the smoke bush, see if the white dove really is planning to build its nest there.
It would be a relief in fact. I could be sure that I was spending my days wisely. As it is, there is always another review coming up. Another scan due; ‘this one’ may change everything. I might have to live with those blocked gutters after all. Instead I have ‘now-you-see-it; now-you-don’t’. Many, many times I have wished the future was settled one way or the other. The uncertainty wraps its slimy fingers round every decision, every thought.
I give you that insight, as a foil to the current hysterical reaction to the news that the European Court of Human Rights insists that a similar uncertainty be inserted into the life of those prisoners on a whole life tariff.
No-no-no! Cry the soft hearted British public, these men have committed heinous crimes, they should be rewarded with the knowledge that they will die in prison. Besides, (*yawn*) what right has Brussels to tell us what to do.
Yes-yes-yes! Say I. Hold out the distant hope that they may be free of the drudgery of their day to day life. Give them 25 year-reviews. They will never know whether to indulge their pleasure of disembowelling another man in the showers, or to behave themselves in the hope of release. Should they chose the route of behaving themselves, they will kick themselves for having denied themselves their particular pleasures when the Home Secretary reviews their case and decides that actually they can just stay where they are, and sends them back for another 25 years….
They will never know how to conduct themselves from one day to the next. One minute they will give up hope and deck a goading prison officer, the next they will waste weeks in the nearest bible class. The uncertainty will infect every waking hour. Nothing could be crueller. It is, actually, how we used to manage murderers in this country. Until the turn of this century, a ‘life sentence’ only carried a minimum recommendation of term in exceptional circumstances, at the judge’s discretion. It was a genuinely indeterminate sentence, constantly under review depending on your behaviour and remorse.
Before you tell me that ‘they should be hung by the neck, not incarcerated’ – that is the easy option. If retribution is your goal, don’t hang ‘em, don’t lock ‘em up for life, leave ‘em trying to decide how to conduct their day to day life with just a tantalising glimmer of hope dangling 25 years in front of them. It’s vicious.
*Today’s decision is that I will clean the windows…