content warning: depictions of imprisonment, description of medical stitches
No happy hearths for us. In the slowness of days while the lights of cities go on and off we work the dormitories for cigarettes, currency of the convicted, minor industries thriving in this chapel of corruption, regulations our enemy.
Dickie, who has already boxed in the tents, skin, features, gravelly pronunciation harbouring a vestige of his downtrodden people’s true Australian tongue, contrasts with me, my skin pale, pimply, much taller, less brave, both adrift in the undertow of a treacherous tide, surviving.
Alert to venomous prejudice of outsiders, incomers, the disabled, the different, flotsam washed up on these isolated shores, my speech, London’s foggy guttural erased, sets up the entertainment, a ringmaster’s spiel to those whose lives have been fistfuls of pain, redemption a haven too far.
If we feign placidity, supervision is soft between grub and lights out at nine. After each boy hands over tobacco, I thread a needle, cotton white for dramatic effect – how we came by these humble items for legerdemain beyond me now – before transporting Dickie into his spirit world by muttering great bulldust, as he calls it when we are alone together, that odd friendship of cast out boys.
Svengali sentenced, I hush them quiet as night, the only thing missing, a mopoke’s ancient call, hand the needle to Dickie who flutters his black eyelashes, rhythmically whispering the names of racehorses backwards as practised, before opening his mouth wide, bad boys bored no longer, jostling to spot any hanky-panky.
He pierces his plump cheek, a silvery glint emerging through the outside of his expressionless face eliciting disgusted oaths, some demanding he stop, as he pulls the entire shaft trailing cotton through, blood the climax, bright against white, a droplet left on his cheek as I snap my fingers to break the spell, bring him back, to survival, cigarettes.
content warning: depictions of violence and injury
Anger off my heel for now, a murderous taste, metallic, blood in my mouth, drizzle in the yard beyond this high window, an air-slit in pitted stone the colour of bruises housing rage, terror, disgrace; sloughed up, a bucket, mat, graffiti, muscles still trembling, flesh lacerated, survival is my sole aim. If my heart shrivels, I shall become a chalked outline.
The boy prone on concrete, blood pooling around his head, spreading ever wider filling cracks, alarmed me. Captain Armstrong, ‘Snake’ for his venomous glare, controlled this regime; straight backed, boxing gloves displayed in his office a sign of muscular Christianity, the firm instruction of young minds led astray.
The historic C19th prison, gutted of tears, fear, yet wreathed in desolation, was sold to developers. Before its makeover as townhouses, it opened to the public. When I still searched for love, my then second wife, young sons, and I joined tourists stickybeaking at forsaken souls’ lives. Our guide, Jim Armstrong, flabby, retired guard, hair, humour, thin, entertained us, a practised spiel, anecdotes about colourful inmates, reminding us to visit the souvenir shop when leaving.
Reaching the Young Offenders Group area, I struggle, remembered sour taste in my mouth, disoriented, itching to break out from our polite, voyeuristic seminar, step into shadow, find a vestigial echo of the vanished tool shed where I witnessed in dread a pitchfork at a terrified boy’s throat.
Leaving, I needed to talk, explain, but bore it, bottled up as usual. I didn’t tip Jim, this actor, wanted to expose obscenity, but held that to myself, too, our boys, my salvaged life. I bought a T-shirt instead, wore it, days softening into years, until, pocked with holes, it eventually fell away into my foul ragbag of reminiscence.
IAN C SMITH’s work has been published in Across the Margin, BBC Radio 4 Sounds, The Dalhousie Review, Gargoyle, Griffith Review, Southword, Stand, & The Stony Thursday Book. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.