Episodes from an English Prison
In 2000, the Georgian nonconformist
artist Vladimir Kandelaki, spent just over a month under lock and
key in Wormwood Scrubs, London. He was arrested off a BA flight
from Tbilisi, charged with drinking, smoking and sexual harassment
aboard. He was wearing a Cossack general's uniform at the time.
Kandelaki denied the charges and they were later withdrawn for
lack of evidence, after 6 months' bail in London. Recently, he
published a book about his English prison experiences. It includes
his equally unfortunate 'adventures' in America.
TOP BUNK, BOTTOM BUNK?
Bikov, apologetic and embarrassed,
requested the bottom bunk:
"Volodya, it won't be easy for me to
get up there..."
I've always preferred the top shelf
myself - in train compartments, and even more so in this
instance. Up top I've always felt freer: no one reels past, no one
sits down on you; and here there was the bonus of being closer to
the window. Also, one had to take Bikov's colossal weight
"Are you out of your mind?" I replied.
"Having you on top of me is the last thing I need. You'd go
through the bunk and crush me. And anyway you wouldn't be able to
get up there without the assistance of an entire army division
with a winch".
Bikov was very happy and whispered to
himself: "And we can talk..."
Looking around the narrow cell, he
began thinking aloud: "It's no worse than an international train
compartment, except that the toilet's in here with us".
On the walls there were some half-clad
women torn from newspapers, and football timetables.
Most people thought Bikov was insane,
which I could not agree with. I was even glad that I had
guardianship over him, as it were.
HOW BIKOV BECAME A MUSLIM
It was time for lunch... Bikov got out his customary sign: "I'm a
Muslim. No pork." It produced different reactions from the
multinational kitchen staff: smiles, confusion or astonishment. I
noticed that on this occasion every single main course was pork. I
kept quiet. Having taken our portions back to our cell, I watched
Bikov attentively. He was finishing his lunch with appetite.
"You know you just ate pig?"
"I know. But what could I do? It tasted nice."
Keeping up the conversation, I asked:
"So how did you become a Muslim?"
"Well I just told myself I was, and that's it."
"How d'you mean?"
"I have a copy of the Koran," -Bikov answered with pride.
"Well so do I, and what's more it's an ancient manuscript which is
collection. But this does not mean that I'm a Muslim. You know
very well that they have their traditions, priest, mullahs and
prayers. It's not enough to just have the Koran lying around in
some trunk somewhere..."
"Well I don't think all that stuffs obligatory," - mumbled Ivan.
"By the way, on your sign the word 'Muslim' is written with an 'N'
"That can't be possible, I checked it."
"So go ahead and check..."
I wasn't about to quarrel with him about it.
HOW THE AUTHOR EXTRACTED HIS TOOTH
There was a temporary break in the football. It looked like I
would have to sit under lock and key with a sleeping Bikov. The
evening did not show much promise. But somehow we found an
interesting programme about plastic surgery on TV. Bikov suddenly
and unexpectedly began to demonstrate his knowledge of the human
"How do you know all that?"
"I was interested in medicine once."
"Bikov, you mean to tell me you wanted to enter medical
"No, I just had a lot of books. I was interested in criminal
medicine mostly. As for higher education, I wanted the
Academy of Arts -1 even attended some courses."
"And at the time, did you also intend to become Adolph II? You and
Hitler have similar biographies. He also applied to the
Academy of Arts, but didn't get in. If only the examiners had
known -that instead he'd embark down a bloody path from which they
themselves would suffer- then they'd have welcomed him with open
arms. And as for your Jewishness and your Adolphism, you and yours
would've been the first ones he'd have turned his attentions to."
But I didn't want to get onto this theme with him, as far as we
lived in one cell a difference of opinion wouldn't have led to
anything good. Though I was interested in his position and the
substance of his idea. To my concrete question he replied:
"Naturally. This means that's how it was meant to be."
"But then there'd have been no Adolph II. That is -
"Yes but I exist."
..."Bikov, you can tell a person's age from his teeth you know.
But not from yours. By the way, how do you manage to keep them in
such good condition, especially having a sweet-tooth and when you
don't clean them. I've never once seen you with a toothbrush.
"Tea, Volodya, with tea." . "What with chifii* in
Vorkuta?" ^ "That as well."
"That means you had time to look after yourself. I never had the
time, nor the desire, nor the means. Especially not in
America, in one of my most difficult periods without a sponsor or
a translator... Bikov, have you ever pulled your own tooth out?”
"Of course not."
"Well I had no choice. In the absence of tongs, pliars, or any
kind of instrument whatsoever, I made use of a plain steel nail
file. By bending back the end, -I used it like a hook. Wobbling
loose the bad tooth, I broke it in half and sticking the bent end
of the 'instrument' into the gum, I began to force my way in...
Then I hooked onto half of the tooth with the file, which levered
it up and it unexpectedly leapt out. The tooth ricocheted off the
wall into the far corner of the room. I found it there some days
later and was surprised at its size. The remaining root was more
difficult. Whatever I tried it just didn't want to come out. I
used the file, my hands, shoving the file deeper and deeper with
the aid of my fingers. Tearing my lips and almost breaking my jaw,
I gradually teased it out. The 'operation' lasted almost 3
hours, maybe more. And you talk about tea...
Meanwhile, back in
Tbilisi everyone envied me and said that Kandelaki had left
everything and everyone to go and have a good time in
After a few days my absent sponsor, that conman, finally turned
up. Pointing to my tooth, he asked (he knew about my torturous
"Medicine - interesting?"
I replied "Tsenkyu very match", meanwhile thinking: "somehow I've
managed without you, you bastard. Well let's go to sleep, Bikov.
If you need any little service, just let me know. I don't have
the nail file, but we'll find some other suitable replacement."
I had the impression that Bikov had already fallen asleep. I
wondered whether he'd heard the end of my story.
BIKOV AND THE INDELIBLE DUST
Ivan was grumbling and pacing around the cell.
"Volodya, however much I sweep this floor it's dusty again."
Then he had some kind of illumination and suddenly with
"Ah but it's prison dust, how did I fail to see that before!"
"What d'you mean 'prison dust'? You want to say it's
eternal or something? Are you going mystical on me? - that dust
is indelible, permanent, what? Take a look at the floor, have a
good look - d'you see any blood stains? As much as you scrub, you
won't get rid of those traces of prisoners tortured before us."
Bikov looked at the floor and fell silent.
"I was only talking about dust... Volodya."
"And I'm talking about ghosts. Who knows who was here before us
and what happened in this prison, even in this very cell?"
Adolph II quickly lay down and got under his covers. Evidently, he
wasn't ready for meetings with ghosts. But anyway, walking
barefoot on the floor suddenly didn't seem like a very inviting
THE PETROL PSYCHOPATH
The older prisoner, comparatively respectable-looking but twitchy
and nervous, turned out to be an egotistic, Scrooge-like
psychopath. I made least of all contact with him and didn't even
attempt to remember his name. From his explanations, I understood
that he'd been arrested for an argument with his wife, during
which he poured petrol over her. With the aid of a lighted
cigarette, mimicry and the sound "fu"*, I tried to establish
whether he'd actually set her alight. It seemed that he
understood, because he answered indignantly:
"No, no," waving his hands - to signify that he was no murderer.
Our dialogue continued. I remembered some English words and asked:
"Wife no goot?"
"Very goot," he replied.
"So what was with the petrol?" I mean, why did he pour it over her
if she was "very goot"? He pointed a finger at himself, to explain
that it was he that was bad.
know the peculiar qualities of petrol because I have personally
experienced them. There was an occasion when we were travelling to
the mountainous region of Khevsureti by car. Our tank was empty
and we couldn't manage to find a flat place to fill it up. At last
we found a relatively level place in the shade of trees by a
stream. The car was so red-hot that it was impossible to get even
close. 1 put the petrol canister on the ground, opened it, and
from strong pressure it blew up. Petrol gushed straight into my
face. .1 was so surprised I didn't have time to close my eyes. I
couldn't see anything. I lost all sense of direction. I stood like
that for a while, with terrible eye pain. None of the other
travellers, including my son, knew how to drive. We were high up
in the mountains - so it was useless to rely on a passing car.
My fellow travellers led me to the stream. With difficulty I
rinsed my eyes, but my sight didn't return for almost an hour.
Obviously it was impossible to go any further into the mountains.
We started back along a dangerously narrow road, which ran between
a cliff and a chasm.
How we got to the
of Barisakho it is difficult to imagine. I drove practically
blind, guided by the directions of my son and friend at every
turn. At the time they didn't realise that I couldn't see
BROKEN WINDOW, BED FOR THE NIGHT
began to tell a story from my first years in America [to his
cellmate Ivan Bikov].
"My sponsors changed regularly. One set of scumbags replaced
another. The next ones worse than the lastO Unhappy with [the
current one's] answers and promises, I left the house, without
remembering or having written down my address or telephone number;
and without any money since my sponsor simply hadn't given me
any. In my pocket, I had some miserable sum that was just enough
for a taxi fare. But I knewOa region where a few Russian-speaking
friends lived. I decided to go and look them up, hoping for some
calming company and maybe a drink as well.
'I paid the taxi-driver, you can say - with my last money. But
here nobody answered the door. Even though I could see there was a
light on in the flat. Neither did I find other friends
at home. I popped into a bar I knew and where they knew meO I
bought a beer with what small change I had left. I made
that drink lastO Then the bar closed and I remained in complete
solitude on an empty street. And then I understood: Saturday night
-maybe my friends had gone somewhere for the week-end.
Standing around and walking to and fro, I didn't know what to do.
I couldn't walk home because I didn't physically know how - I
didn't have money for a taxi and I didn't know my address either.
'In an attempt to warm up I walked up and down the deserted
streets. Typical, again in another ridiculous position. How
fortunate I am with these situations! And suddenly I see a police
car going past. I made a hand sign and they stopped. There were
two policewomen in the car - a blonde one and a black one.
I didn't even know what to say to them, or how to say it; so I
began explaining in my own way:
"No co-ordinates, no money, I Soviet Union, no speak English."
At that time, the
still existed. The policewomen laughed and drove off. Obviously,
it wasn't within their functions to pick lost penniless wayfarers
up off the street. What was I supposed to do? I was chilled to
the bone and out of confusion couldn't think of an effective
course of action. I kept going back and forth. Everything was
locked. There were no night clubs and who would have let me in
without any money anyway? Right next door was the negro region,
which people had warned me off. All I needed now was for someone
to steal my coat, I thought, and then I'd freeze comprehensively.
'Just then I noticed a substantial shop-window-front. After some
thought I picked up a brick and thew it at the glass. But it
turned out to be very thick impenetrable glass. I crashed the
brick at it again, but the glass remained whole. Then I crossed
over the street and taking the brick in my hands like a discus I
swung my arm back a few times, before hurling it into the centre
of the window. It crumbled into tiny pieces. It turned out like
one of those western filmsO
'I looked at my broken window with millions of glass splinters
and a ringing alarm
Breaking off my story, I said jokingly,
"Ivan, why aren't you wondering where I got the brick from? After
all, this wasn't the Soviet Union
where all kinds of unclaimed building materials just lay abandoned
all over the place."
Without waiting for an answer, I continued:
"By the shop window there was an old dried-out wooden barrel
underneath which three bricks had been placed."
Listening attentively, Ivan asked me what happened next. I
unhurriedly rolled a cigarette and, pointing out that there
weren't many matches left, lit it. I continued -
"here the police turned up, caught me, put handcuffs on and shoved
me into the police car. At the station, they took off the
handcuffs and handed me over to another policeman who put on
another pair of handcuffsO While they were writing something down
I stood there dejectedly. But without anywhere to stay at least
I'd accomplished my aim
of getting to a warm police station. And suddenly those 2
policewomen burst in. This region was obviously part of their
beat. Seeing me, they laughed again, repeating my words:
"no coordinate, no money,
And no doubt they added that I'd probably done it specially just
to get picked up by the police.
They confiscated my belt and shoelaces and locked me in an empty
cell. There it was no warmer than it had been on the streetO. At 6
in the morning they took me out and to my surprise - sent me
packing. I resisted, I didn't want to go outside.
"You see Bikov, over there they forcibly ejected me and over here
they feed you and keep you in."
'Strangely, I remembered the telephone number of a friendly,
excellent Russian-speaking priest called Father Mark. They gave
him a call. On my way out I saw other shivering homeless people
like myself sitting on the stairs. But at least I'd been allowed
to stay the night." »
"Queen of Spades" is currently available in Georgian and Russian
(priced around 7 iari from local retailers). It is expected to
appear in English soon. Watch this space.
Translated from the Russian by A. Spurling