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  • Writer's pictureWill Sharland

Reflections On My Weekly Phone Call With An Ex-Convict During The Covid-19 Pandemic

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

Reflections On My Weekly Phone Call With An Ex-Convict During The Covid-19 Pandemic
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I don’t think it is a controversial opinion to posit that 2020 and 2021 will not be remembered too fondly in our collective memory. England lost the final for the Euros, the Line of Duty finale was an anti-climax, Harry and Meghan left the royal family, and all that other stuff with the pandemic / race riots / being on the brink of nuclear war / growing global political and economic instability / impending climate disaster blah blah blah. Being the guilty, white, champagne socialist male I am, I could not stand idly by while all this injustice made me feel bad about my comfy life. In a move of benevolent goodwill, I searched for opportunities to volunteer in a way which would not put me out too much (a little volunteering here or there would probably be enough to ease the guilt, wouldn’t have to go overboard to make myself feel less bad). I saw advertised an opportunity online to be a ‘telephone befriender’ for ‘isolated’ people who were ‘disabled’ and/or ’elderly’. It would only require a few calls a month, which seemed about the minimum level of effort for me to ease the guilt of having a generally pretty easy time while the whole world seemed to be crumbling into a cesspit of infernal despair. So I applied!

Not long after I applied, I was called by (for the sake of confidentiality everyone mentioned in this parable has a pseudonym) Welsh Woman. Welsh Woman was Welsh and was a woman who worked for the organisation Volunteering Matters as a volunteer manager. She was extremely friendly, but I was taken by surprise when she disclosed that this opportunity I applied for would actually involve me talking to people on probation. I am pretty sure there was zero mention of this (literally zero) when I applied online for this, but I had gone to all the effort of applying so it seemed worse to give up and let the guilt consume me than to go ahead with this little scheme. So I agreed with morbid curiosity to be a telephone befriender for people on probation.

Welsh Woman quickly paired me with a man who I was to call every week at the same time. I was given very clear rules concerning what I could talk to this man about. I was to avoid any mention of his previous offences, anything morbid, anything controversial, anything that would involve me giving him money or doing him favours or meeting him or giving him any details about who I was, where I lived, where I worked, and who my friends and family were. I was basically informed that I had to keep the conversation cheerful and light, something that I could fake convincingly given my past experience in customer service. I was sent a burner phone by the charity I was volunteering for with an untraceable sim card; it was made clear to me by Welsh Woman how paramount it was that this man did not know anything about me because the volunteering agency did not know any details about the persons offence. The person I was to be paired with could have been a murderer, a litterer, a necrophile, a loiterer, a nonce, or an innocent person of colour who had been framed by the police. No one knew who I was going to be speaking with week after week, so it was better that I, Wilmslow Will, was safe in my little bubble.

I was sat in my house at the dinner table on the 29th of March 2021 when I called the man I was paired with for the first time. I knew only vague details about him, like the fact that he was isolated, disabled, elderly (I suppose the volunteering ad was not completely misleading) and that his name was Two Teeth. When he picked up the phone, I immediately noticed his incredibly thick West Country accent. He sounded almost identical to Barliman Butterbur in the 2001 film adaption of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The conversation began with me introducing myself without telling him anything about me (something which was quite tricky in retrospect) and explaining all the rules surrounding safeguarding, data protection and why he could only know my first name and nothing else about me. Our first conversation was something of a car crash, by which I mean it was a lovely easy ride for the first twenty minutes until the car of conversation crashed violently into the unveiling of why Two Teeth was in prison. I had been getting to know him for the first twenty minutes, hearing his playful anecdotes and understanding what his interests were through asking plenty of open ended questions, which seemed to work until I began inquiring about his children. Two Teeth said he had two kids, a son (who is now 40), and a daughter (who is now 36), but he was not allowed to see either of them, or his ex-wife, on account of the fact that he was imprisoned for sexually abusing his daughter. He claimed that he had not done any of what he was found guilty of doing, but clearly this was just him saving face. I did not air any of my thoughts on what he revealed at the time; I felt a wave of unease come over me so I quickly shut him down and told him that I was not allowed to hear about any of this. It was a rather awkward end to our first conversation, but I was determined not to let this deter me from calling him again. I established a time when I would call him next, which would be 11am on Monday (it would remain this same time for all of our future calls) and then I hung up. Immediately after my first conversation with Two Teeth, I called Welsh Woman and explained what had happened. She explained very empathetically that it was inevitable that the elephant in the room would probably be spotted at some point, and that my role was to be ‘non-judgemental’ and to steer the conversation in the direction of more light hearted chit chat and to not act as a counsellor for this man to overcome his grievous crimes .

In the time between my first and second call with Two Teeth, I wondered why I was doing this at all. It seemed fair to think that I had gotten myself into quite a strange situation. I felt like I was going to be wasting my time spending one hour a week speaking with a man who had committed horrendous acts, with no sign of remorse, when I could be helping someone who was genuinely struggling in this unprecedented time. That said, I do sincerely believe that the most useful work is the work which needs to be done but no one wants to do. It is easy to help someone who is likeable, it is not so easy to help someone who has done something heinous. I decided the next time I called Two Teeth, that I was going to prepare for at least half an hour so that I had enough talking points and questions to keep the conversation from degenerating like it had done the first time.

The next time I spoke with Two Teeth on the phone was surprisingly pleasant. He was a genuinely cheerful and idiosyncratic man; I enjoyed building a mental portrait of him as I chatted with him week by week. He was 69, he had vitiligo (which meant his skin had many white patches and could not be exposed to the sun at all), he lived alone, he had an identical brother, he only had two teeth (two incisors on his bottom jaw), he smoked a pack of fags a day, he hated vegetables and gravy, he was on blood thinning medication which made him constantly feel chilly, he loved watching true crime documentaries (but he would suffer through scripted crime TV like NCIS during the day if nothing better was on (he was always watching NCIS whenever I called)), his cousins son was in hospital due to his morbid obesity, his cousins sons daughter was scheduled to be married but it had been delayed several times due to the pandemic, he was constantly scared of bumping into certain members of his family who might hurt him (I did not ask more), in his younger years he was (allegedly) a professional swimmer, he was six foot tall, he played Candy Crush and Solitaire several hours every day, and he had been on probation for over three years and he lived in a perpetual state of fear that he would be sent back to Dartmoor prison (the last place you would want to be if you were a peadophile). I have no idea how long he was in prison, but ultimately he did not seem like the kind of monster you would imagine him to be for someone who sexually abused their own child.

In spite of his horrific crimes, I did find myself sympathising with him and generally getting along with him. At times it was hard to be upbeat while talking with him though, knowing the reason why he was on probation. I sometimes thought about what he said the first time I spoke with him, when he claimed the whole thing was a conspiracy against him and that he was actually innocent. I would have liked to have believed him, but I know he can’t be right. I am also aware that I talk to him now as an elderly and vulnerable man, but he would have at one point been a younger and more dangerous individual. It would have been easy to relegate him to the status of a complete degenerate though, but I did not want to take this view of him. Whatever he was in the past, I would like to believe that he is not now, whether that is just me being naive or not. I am aware that many paedophiles were sexually abused as children themselves, so intergenerational trauma of sexual abuse is extremely common. The few remarks that Two Teeth made about his own parents did not seem all too pleasant, so it is possible that he may have been the victim of abuse himself when he was young. That said, there are plenty of paedophiles who were not abused as children and plenty of victims of abuse who would never inflict abuse on a child. It would be easy for me, Wilmslow Will, to look down on him from something of an ivory tower though. In reality, I have absolutely no idea what his life has been like, why he did what he did, how he truly feels about it all, whether he is the same person that he used to be, whether he was truly guilty of what he was sent to prison for, or whether anything he told me was even true. Regardless of all this, my role was to be non-judgmental and try support this man, whoever he was, through inarguably one of the toughest times in recent memory.

Welsh Woman said that the volunteering programme would stop at the end of August and that I was supposed to return my burner phone to the organisation. I informed Two Teeth of this and I could tell from his tone of voice that he was upset that we would no longer be talking every week. His licence ended at the start of the summer so he was no longer even on probation; with the lockdown ending too, he was a much more free man than he was when I started speaking to him. I considered giving him my personal contact information so that we could stay in touch after my weekly calls ceased, but my gut said otherwise. I spoke with Welsh Woman and she advised me against giving Two Teeth my contact information primarily for my safety, but also because she insisted that I had done my bit for Two Teeth during the hardest part of the pandemic and now, as both the lockdown and Two Teeth’s probation license had ended, it seemed appropriate for our relationship to end as well.

I had my last conversation with Two Teeth on the 17th of August 2021. It was a pleasant chat where we spoke about the usual topics: the wellbeing of his obese cousins son, how his identical brother is doing, what TV he had been watching recently, what he’d been up to since I last called, what he had got planned this week, and what he thought about the weather. He also told me some new information like the fact that he had been in a hot air ballon twenty years ago, that it was his 70th birthday (as well as his identical twin brothers) in a few weeks time, and that he had gone to see the 2012 Olympics in person. Near the end of the call, he thanked me for speaking with him for the last few months. It was not an overly emotional goodbye, but I could tell that he was sincere when he said that he had looked forward to our chats and that they had really helped him through a very challenging time. I truly do want the best for him and I do sincerely hope that he can acknowledge what he did and use the rest of his life to be a better person. When our last call ended, I felt like I had eased some of my white, male, champagne socialist guilt. The whole thing was a very peculiar learning curve which I, Wilmslow Will, am not really sure what to make of just yet.

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