Wild Dog River

Chapter Eleven – The Sweeper


My old man was a wheeling and dealing kind of man, who knew the inside of every pub in Far-north Queensland, and half the blokes propping up the bar. Yet, he could make one beer last an hour, and his mind was as quick as a whip. You could rely on him. He was a justice of the peace, who signed affidavits and stat decs for half of Cairns. He was wise, too. When someone needed to unload their troubles, my dad knew how to listen, and he could always find a way forward.

Dad used to tell me that, as soon as you’re old enough to walk into a school yard, life is going to start hammering away at you. Sometimes it’s a woman who lays you low, or a boss on a power trip. Jealous mongrels who want what you have, or just blokes who make themselves feel good by smearing your face on concrete. Friends and family who turn on you, dreams that fade or disappear in broken heaps.

Sometimes, like me, it’s just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

‘But don’t ever let life knock you down for long,’ he said, ‘because once you’re on the ground, it’s too easy to stay there. If you don’t get up, life will kick your arse and keep kicking it. Pretty much everyone will join in. Even cowards love to belt a brave man when he stops fighting back.’

Remembering his words, aching almost everywhere, and with my hands still cuffed, I rolled to my knees, got to my feet and stuck out my chest. I spat blood and dust from my lips and glared while the cops handed me over to the prison guards.

At Reception I was photographed, showered, issued with prison drabs and sandshoes, and again checked out by a medic. He put sticking plaster on my eyebrow but made no comment about it. My few personal effects and civilian clothes were checked into the Reception store.

Two screws marched me down an access lane, past a central tower with radiating walkways. The prison, I realised, was laid out like a wagon wheel, with the three main cell blocks at sixty-degree angles, whitewashed kitchens and other outbuildings in between. The smell of mangroves and mud from Cleveland Bay carried on the hot breeze while our feet raised puffs of dust on the ground.

I was still trying to channel my father, because I knew it was helping. He’d taught me to find the positives in any situation I found myself in. That was hard right now, but I forced myself to do it. The first and most important was that two people I could count on until the end of time, Mum and my brother Dave, were out there and I knew they would fight for me. Another was that I was in the prime of life, as healthy as any young bloke of my age.

I broke off my thoughts while a guard opened a cyclone-wire gate and one of the screws told me where they were taking me. Not, he explained, one of the maximum-security wings, but to Medsec, a smaller wing that held remand prisoners like me, and also a few short timers who were too big a risk for the minimum-security prison outside the main walls.

Another positive that came to mind as we passed by the prison butchery, with its smells of raw meat and blood, was that I knew people. I was pretty sure that my old boss, Brian Grayling from the Cairns Post would visit, if only to get an exclusive on the story of the murders. He was an influential man and I think he trusted me.

Most importantly, when it came to positives – I was innocent. I’d been stitched up, and that had to mean something.

I must have been walking slowly because one of the screws abused me for dawdling. They unlocked the main door of the Medsec wing and took me down past occupied cells on either side, curious faces checking me out as I passed. The screws opened the door to one cell at the far end. Like the others in the block, it had painted stone walls on three sides, with bars facing the walkway. The interior contained one cot with a washbasin and thunderbox.

One of the screws indicated the folded sheet, blanket and pillow that sat on the cot. ‘You’ll get a cell to yourself for a couple of nights. Make your bed before you lie on it. They’ll line you up for the dining hall at five thirty.’  

When they had gone, I made the bed and sat on the edge. Blokes from other cells called out to me, asked me what I’d done; when my court date was. They called me names, trying to get a reaction. I ignored them all. I was too busy trying to think of more positives.

The solicitor who took me on for the bail hearing had warned me that remand centres were no safer or better than the main prison blocks. With a high turnover of stressed and angry inhabitants, some of them coming down off drugs or grog, it could be a powder keg of a place. In Southeast Asia I’d seen all kinds of crap, but being locked up with the most troubled souls of Far-north Queensland would be a new experience.

My thoughts were disturbed by the soft swish of a broom, coming closer along the corridor. A man appeared on the other side of the bars. He was a Murri, thick through the chest and arms, with a small pot belly. He carried a broom in a pair of big hands.

‘Feelin’ sorry for yoursel’ eh brother?’ he said. He had a tired face, with eyes almost hidden by puffy layers around them. I sensed a man who had seen many things in his life, some of which he would like to forget.

I did not respond, but I sensed kindness in his face. Strange how some people seem trustworthy, and turn out to be so, right from the moment you meet them.

‘Yeah, orright,’ he went on.  ‘I can imagine how youse feels right now. When youse wants to talk, I’m around, eh? Name’s Joseph, sweeper for this block, an’ I knows things.’ He tapped his ear with one finger. ‘I hears things. Things that might help you, brother.’ He turned away, and the swishing of the broom resumed.

Still sitting on my cot, a little stunned at what I’d just heard, I added Joseph, the sweeper, to my list of positives.

Continued next Saturday.

©2023 Greg Barron

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