It was a cat B prison. He was in C block. I’ll call him Dave, but that wasn’t his name. He was inside for twelve years, so he must have done something serious.
“Twelve do six miss if I keep out of trouble.”
Nobody came to visit him so he requested an OPV – a prison visitor. I went there once a week. I sat in his cell on level 4. Always next to the open door, those were my security instructions. The prison officer on the corridor checked us at intervals.
We talked about his favourite food, brands of trainers, and different ways to hang yourself. Once he tried to con me.
“You’re a bit of an environmentalist aren’t you miss?”
“Yes I am.”
“My brother on the outside’s starting an environmental magazine.”
“Oh that’s good.”
“How do I do that?”
“We could set up a regular subscription if you give me your bank details.”
I gave him a look.
He didn’t ask again.
The last thylacine, aka the Tasmanian tiger, was trapped in 1933. They called him Benjamin. He wasn’t a tiger, he was a carnivorous marsupial. He had a dense soft yellow brown coat striated by stripes down his back and tail, a large blunt head out of proportion to his body, and short rounded ears. Hobart Zoo was his nick. He was inside for for life, if you could call it that. He only survived three years.
Dave always made me a cup of tea. He kept the milk on the window sill to stop it going off. He wasn’t lucky enough to get prison work in the pot pourri factory and education had been cut for of lack of funds, so he was banged up in his cell twenty-three hours a day. There was an hour for evening association when he could get a shower and mix with the inmates on the wing. He spent the other twenty-three pacing his cell or staring at the walls. On his block there were incidents of self-harm, mental illness and suicide.
Benjamin was a lifer, sentenced for thieving sheep, though he wasn’t to know it was a crime. No association for him. He was a top predator. I watched the film footage of him pacing his cell. It was about the same size as Dave’s. With obsessive pathetic hope he searched for escape. He scented the air, he gauged the spaces between the bars of his cage, he checked the walls, he yawned in tension. Then he started again, up and down, never resting, never giving up.
When Dave couldn’t sleep he imagined he was walking round Upton Lovell, the village he came from.
“You turn right off the A36 just after the Knook Army camp and keep going down the hill past a few cottages till you get to the Prince Leopold. I nip in there for an hour – have a couple of pints, chat to my mates – I can see it like I was in it miss. If you follow the road left and go over the level crossing you come to a housing estate. That’s where my house is. I walk past it every night”
When Benjamin slept I hope he dreamed and his dreams gave him the escape he searched for. That in his mind he was able to run again in the dense forests, shelter in his nests of bark and ferns, and revisit his pups in their lair high up in the caves where they waited for his yip yap bark when he returned with his criminal booty of a farmer’s sheep.
“There’s a path through the graveyard by the church. Cross the bridge over the River Wylie and you can walk in the water meadows on the other side. There’s all butterflies and flowers and cattle grazing. You’d like it there, you being an environmentalist – beautiful it is miss.”
The next time I reported in at the gate he’d gone.
“Transferred last night.”
I felt a sense of loss.
“Can’t tell you that miss.”
Benjamin died of neglect, shut out of his shelter with no escape from the freezing nights and the scorching days. His body was carelessly flung on a scrap heap. The thylacine species was officially declared extinct in 1982. Official protection for his species was offered fifty-nine days before Benjamin died in captivity. His relations were found in fossil form. His ancestors were painted as rock art 40,000 years ago. He was the last to leave. His kind is lost forever by a random act of carelessness.
There have been reports of an occasional sighting. A cry heard in the hills at dusk, a dog-like beast caught in a car’s headlights, but they remain unconfirmed.
Image: Thylacine Ghost VII (Skeleton) by Gabbee Stolp