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I felt so alone and rejected – until my cellmate taught me how to fit in

IIt was June 1981 and I was 18. I was in the dock at Camberwell Green Magistrates Court in South London. I was about to receive my sentence for my role in the April Brixton uprising after being arrested for assaulting a police officer. I ignored the summary of my case and stared at the public gallery. Relatives of the other six accused sat there in quiet, hopeful silence. I imagined they were mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, siblings and grandparents. But not one was mine.

I studied their faces and tried to understand what it would be like to have someone of your own blood supporting you. I tried to imagine what my own parents looked like and what they might feel if I got my punishment. like my mother were present, would she cry? I barely heard that the 12 month jail term was given to me.

When I looked at my co-defendant, I suddenly became very indignant. I suspected that they would be visited by relatives wherever they were sent. There was no one for me. Not even a cousin.

I have felt isolated countless times, especially growing up in the infamous Shirley Oaks children’s home in Croydon, after being abandoned by my father when I was two. But I had never felt so alone as the moment I peered into that public gallery at court. Nobody gives a fuck about you, Alex.

They took me in one of those security vans with the blackened windows. As I sat in my cubicle, I wondered if there was a quick and easy way to end my pathetic existence. After being taken to a large cell near Lambeth Walk, I was driven to Wormwood Scrubs in West London. For some reason, the jingle of bundled keys and the clatter of metal prison doors seemed louder than anywhere else.

Sent Down… Sheyi Cole as Alex Wheatle in the Small Ax episode about his life. Photo: Parisa Taghizadeh/BBC/McQueen Limited

I was given my stiff prison uniform and escorted to my cell. They opened the door and pushed me in. I closed my eyes and tried to prepare myself for the suicide I committed on the prison bus. Behind me sounded the closing door.

When I opened my eyes, I saw that I would be sharing my cell with a Rastafarian who looked at least 20 years older than me. He introduced himself as Simeon and offered me a cup of tea. I declined and refused to talk to him. I wanted to be left to writhe in my own self-pity so that I could come up with a plan to end my miserable days.

But Simeon insisted he wanted to get acquainted. Moreover, it is impossible to find your own space in a small shared cell. The tension between us became unbearable, especially since he was suffering from diarrhea.

In the end we got hit. Or rather, he was beaten and I received them. At the end of our fist-to-fist I was sitting in a corner, screaming my lungs out. It was not so much because of the pain Simeon had inflicted, but because of the harsh pain of child abuse and trauma. Up to that point, no doctor had ever described to me what a breakdown feels like, but I think I was very close to it.

Fortunately, Simeon took pity on me and insisted that I tell him my story. During that long night, the stench of feces creeping up my nostrils, I did.

He didn’t say much, but every now and then he nodded. He understood all too well that from the moment I was admitted to care at the age of two and a half, I was disconnected from my roots, culture and people. He took it upon himself to reconnect me. He pushed CLR James’s The Black Jacobins in my eager hands. “This will tell you something about where you come from and where you stand in battlehe said.

Although my education had stalled, with numerous suspensions and three expulsions, I had always been a good read. When I was five, I started reading the comics and magazines that were sometimes thrown on the floor of my dorm room. Little did I know it boosted my aptitude for the written word.

I swallowed every novel or text Simeon gave me. I read Dickens, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, John Steinbeck and so many others. By reading I discovered that I was not the only one with a rough start in life.

In the silence of the night, Simeon and I discussed African civilizations. He would teach me about the kings and queens of the continent. He taught me about the struggle for black liberation in South Africa, Angola, Mozambique and other countries. He introduced me to the life of Marcus Garvey and how he not only inspired the struggle for equality for black people in the Caribbean but also influenced the birth of the civil rights movement in the US.

Together we would try to decipher Bob Marley’s songs. We sang the Wailers’ Get Up, Stand Up and Dennis Brown’s three meals a day. He would laugh at my impressions of reggae artists Barrington Levy and Johnny Osbourne.

Simeon became a mentor and a father to me. I no longer felt alone. I let go of the rope I had grabbed and held from the moment I stared at the public gallery in the courtroom.

Just before I finished my sentence, Simeon instructed me, “Alex, your life, and all that of the underclass, is as valuable as anyone else’s in this world; Never forget that.”

With that mantra in my head, I started writing. Initially reggae lyrics and poems about my lived experience. My fables are essentially the stories of the underclass or, as we said in Brixton, the… suffering.

Whatever I achieve in this old writing game is due to the conversion I experienced under Simeon in Wormwood Scrubs. The stories are already there, sometimes they go unnoticed, ignored or rejected. I’m just trying to make them important.

I will be eternally grateful to him.

Alex Wheatle’s latest novel, Cane Warriors, is out now (Andersen Press, £7.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at: Guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at: befrienders.org.