It wasn’t easy for him to go to work that day. In fact it wasn’t easy for him to go to work on most days but today that feeling was significantly more pronounced. Even so, he was happier and much more content.
But how long can I work here now, he thought. Everything has changed and thus shouldn’t this?
At the main gate, the security guard glanced over his badge and handed him the log book. He made his entry and then, just for a few moments, lingered outside the guard’s room, expecting the question he wished to answer. But then he remembered that the guard wouldn’t ask because he didn’t know. Disappointed, he smiled to himself and walked away.
I had been very discreet. It seems like such an unnecessary precaution now. I want everyone to know.
Minutes after he had reached his desk and set down his cap, one of the other officers approached him.
“How is the stomach?” the officer asked and handed him the keys.
He was a little taken aback by the strange way in which the question had been put and was about to reply when he remembered that the officer too didn’t know.
“Not too well apparently,” the officer continued on noticing his look. “Anyway, the Warden would like to see you right away. You shouldn’t have come in today either.”
He grabbed his cap once again, set it firmly on his head and walked towards the Warden’s office while the officer left for home. The imposing steel door to the office was, as always, slightly ajar. He gave the customary knock and was answered by a very expectant voice.
“Please do come in.”
On seeing him enter, the Warden rose from his chair in apprehension and gave him the inquiring look he so desired.
“It was protracted but safe,” he answered. “They are well.”
The Warden’s face cleared and they both partook in a quick and awkward embrace.
“This is so much easier away from work,” said the Warden.
“The uniform is a hindrance,” he smiled. “We are used to being stern while wearing them.”
The Warden laughed and returned to his seat.
“Anyway, I am delighted for you.”
He nodded and smiled. Some of the happiness that he had felt last night returned and, once again, he wished he could be at home instead of here.
There is such contrast. They represent such different things.
“So what is it?” asked the Warden while he rummaged through the little cupboard on the right side of his desk. “I know that isn’t the best way of putting that question.”
“It is a girl,” he laughed.
It took him a little while but the Warden finally managed to find the bottle of scotch and placed it on his desk along with two plastic cups.
“That’s great. I know you wanted a girl.”
“I had no such preference,” he said and held his cup.
“Nonsense. We all have preferences.”
He lifted his cup and was about to take a sip when he noticed that the warden had stopped and hence so did he.
“There should be some sort of a toast,” said the Warden. “The occasion warrants it. But I can somehow never say the right thing. I always make it a little too silly.”
“Better you than me sir.”
“Alright then,” accepted the Warden and gave a slightly cringed look before saying, “To family?”
They both emptied their cups and put it down. The Warden refilled them immediately.
“That was a little too silly wasn’t it?”
“Just a bit,” he replied and they both laughed.
“This is really good,” he said.
“Isn’t it? I had been looking for an excuse to open this bottle for a while now. You gave me a pretty good one today.”
“Why do you have this bottle in your office?”
“I received it here. Just never took it home.”
“Received it here? From whom?”
“Some prisoner’s relative. I don’t recall the name.”
He stopped drinking and looked at the Warden with surprise.
“And you accepted it?”
“Of course I did.”
“This relative didn’t ask for any favours?”
“But you know they will,” he said. “This is akin to a bribe.”
“It isn’t a bribe if I don’t do what they ask me to,” the Warden smiled. “Then it is just a gift. And it is rude to not accept gifts. Especially one that is so smooth.”
They both finished their drinks. He was about to throw away his glass when the Warden stopped him and asked him to place it on the desk beside his. He refilled both.
“Maybe we shouldn’t.”
“I believe otherwise.”
“Steadily then,” he said as he raised the glass and the Warden nodded.
“When I became a father eleven years ago,” said the Warden but then stopped and smiled to himself. “It is strange that when I think of my son, I think of him as a small boy who is only eleven years old. But when I think of the fact that I have been a father for eleven years now, it seems like such a long time.”
“That’s true,” he replied, not sure of what else to say. “It does seem that way.”
“Anyway, so when I had my son, I promised myself that I wouldn’t work here for too long.”
“I have had similar thoughts,” he replied, remembering his deliberations from the morning.
“I expected that. I guess it is natural. You are afraid of the questions.”
“Did you have to answer them?”
“There is no way out of that,” the Warden smiled at the hopeful nature of that question. “Sooner or later, all children are interested in what their parents do.”
“Well I do have a few more years.”
“True. But you’ll be surprised how quickly that day comes.”
“Are you trying to help?” he asked with a hint of irony in his voice.
“I am only asking you to be prepared and to think before you make any decision. I am trying not to lose you.”
There was a knock on the door and the Warden immediately lifted the bottle of his desk and placed it near his feet. One of the guards came in with the morning attendance roll. He was a little surprised to see his immediate superior sitting with the Warden.
“I thought you weren’t going to come in today sir,” he said as he laid the file on the Warden’s desk. “How is the stomach?”
“It is much better,” he smiled and looked at the Warden who turned a little red.
“Is the count right?” the Warden asked the guard.
The guard left and the bottle resumed its place.
“I knew you wouldn’t want them to know,” the Warden explained.
“I didn’t. I do now.”
“Of course you do. You may tell them. In your own time.”
Then they both, for the next few moments, focused on their drinks as they tried to recall the subject they had been talking about. The Warden was the first to remember.
“We don’t really work at that bad a place,” began the Warden.
“Yes but it will always be associated in that manner.”
“It may be but the truth is the exact opposite. You and I know that. We do a good thing.”
“But that’s logic,” he argued. “Children can’t be answered with logic. It is too complicated”
“So is a fairy tale or Santa Claus or religion. But we tell them those things and they accept it. Children will accept or believe anything as long as it is packaged in the right manner – With glossy red paper and a ribbon on top. Try the truth that way.”
“Did you tell your child the truth?”
The Warden smiled and refilled. “No. But then, during my time, the Warden didn’t drink.”
“I better lock the door.”
He got up and, with a measured pace, walked towards the door and bolted it. The Warden watched him walk back slowly and take a seat.
“You are overreacting.”
“I don’t mind telling the truth,” he said, ignoring the comment. “But then the questions will follow.”
“Yes they will,” the Warden nodded. “The same questions that are always asked sooner or later. Just that in our particular case, they are always sooner.”
He leaned back on the chair, closed his eyes and put his hands out in front as if he were holding a box.
“Good people. Bad people. Punishment,” he said softly and moved his hands up and down each time for each little phrase. “I could tell her about that.”
“Exactly. Remember – for her you are the hero here. You are the one who keeps them locked and, as a result, keep her safe.”
“You are being a little too silly again,” he said and they laughed.
“Even so, try and imagine what our guests here tell their kids. Your situation is much better.”
“Yes what do they tell?” he said suddenly and sat up. The Warden took the opportunity to pour another drink.
“I guess they lie.”
“Isn’t that convenient.”
“Don’t be that smug,” the Warden said. “We too lie in our own ways.”
Now they were both leaning back with their eyes closed and with their glasses in their hands from which they continued to drink – the quantity decreasing with each successive sip. A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door and the same guard as before tried to turn the handle but was surprised to find that it was bolted.
“Sir?” the guard shouted. “It is time for the one hour exercise period in the yard.”
They both woke up and looked at each other with weary eyes.
“I am afraid he has fallen ill again,” the Warden replied and they both suppressed their laughter. “And so have I. You take over.”
They drained their glasses and this time the Warden didn’t feel the need to refill.
“What were we talking about?” asked the Warden as they both leaned back once again.
“I became a father yesterday,” he replied.
“Ah yes,” the Warden smiled. “Congratulations.”