Story: Prison Duties

Language English – A story for learners of English
Level C1 (5 of 6) – Advanced (Fluent) What's this?

“Keep playing!” shouted one of the guards.

Harriet turned back to the piano. She yawned, took a deep breath, and tried to think of another tune they would like.

“Come on! You’re spoiling the mood!”

She began to play, and the prison guards cheered. Behind her, they danced around the dim canteen. They knocked the plates onto the floor, and splashed beer everywhere.

Harriet knew the guards were too drunk to realise what she was playing. It was the National Anthem – the old version, from before the country had been invaded. Harriet had played the old Anthem in public six years ago; that’s why she was in prison now.

As she played the final note, suddenly the lights turned on. The Prison Chief was standing in the doorway. The guards stopped dancing and saluted.

“Enough now, boys,” the Chief said. “Take her back to her cell, and go to bed.”

Harriet was holding her breath. Had the Chief heard what she was playing? But he had already left. She breathed. She was stupid to have taken such a risk. If she’d been playing just a few seconds longer…

One of the guards locked Harriet back in her cell. Harriet was a small and frail woman, so even a drunk guard was enough security. Besides, she was neither strong nor agile enough to escape.

“You’ve got to escape with us,” whispered Harriet’s cell-mate after the guard had left.

“My dear, I can’t,” Harriet sighed.

“Trust me, Harriet. We’ve been watching for months. At exactly twelve o’clock, the guards at the courtyard gate leave for lunch – they always leave on time. At least two minutes later, the next guards arrive – they are always late. You just need to walk out with us, and get into my brother’s car.”

“I’ll slow you down – you’ll get caught – I mustn’t come!” Harriet whimpered. “I’ll think of you every day, all of you, and it will make me happy. If people like you are free, then our old country is still alive.”

“You can be free too, Harriet. We’re leaving tomorrow. Meet us in the courtyard.”

“No, my dear, no…”

“Please change your mind before midday.”

The next day, Harriet was anxious all morning. As usual, at half past eleven, the Prison Chief came to take Harriet to the canteen, so she could play for him while he had coffee and a cigarette.

After each song, Harriet looked at the clock. It was nearly midday. Was she really considering escaping? Her cell-mate and his friends had a good plan. She was slow, but she only needed to walk…

Lunchtime approached, and the canteen filled with guards. The Prison Chief was busy talking to some of them. She could leave right now. How long would it be before he realised the music had stopped?

Harriet stood up, and walked slowly towards the Chief.

“What do you want?”

“Please, Sir,” said Harriet. “I’m not feeling very well. Could I join the other prisoners in the courtyard? I need some air.”

The Chief put down his fork. He looked at her for a long time.

“Very well,” he said.

Harriet looked at the clock. There was one minute left. She tried to appear calm as she walked towards the door.

Behind her, she heard two guards get up. “We should go as well,” said one. “We’re guarding the courtyard gate this afternoon. I’d like to get there early for once.”

They marched ahead of Harriet. Harriet continued walking. Then she sat down at the piano. She took a deep breath, and began to play as loudly as she could.

Within a few seconds, there was a huge noise as every guard in the room threw back their chairs and began to shout. Before Harriet had even finished the first part of the old National Anthem, the Prison Chief lifted her from the chair and threw her onto the floor.

“How dare you play that!” he screamed.

Harriet looked up at the guards, dazed. She smiled weakly.

“What are you still doing here?” the Chief snapped at two of the guards. “You’ll be even later than usual!”