WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON
This prison caper, for a bloke who knows himself to be innocent, plucked from civilian life and thrown behind bars, was no picnic. My mood went from panic-stricken, then maudlin and white-hot rage on a minute-by-minute basis.
I’d scarcely slept anyhow, but at 0600 a whistle blew, followed by the clang and squeal of the doors to the wing being opened. Heavy iron has an authority like no other material, and the sound echoed through the upper galleries of the wing. The screws marched into the corridor and commenced roll call, yelling out names as if all prisoners were born deaf. They made smart-arse comments as they unlocked each cell in turn, and fired insults left and right as if from the barrel of a gun.
I had not removed my clothes all night, still believing, I guess, that this prison was a temporary thing, and at any moment I might be transported back to a boat on the Great Barrier Reef, with Tom smoking Marlboro cigarettes and reading Cleveland Westerns and Owen taking a spell at the wheel while I fished and let my heart sing to the blue ocean.
As the screws arrived I sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on my socks and sandshoes. When my cell door opened, I made no move. I had no idea what to do. The screw snarled like a dog, ‘Get your latrine bucket and line up with the others.’
I did as I was told, for a former soldier following commands becomes second nature. I picked up my bucket, left the cell and joined the line, joining a long, snaking river of men, with tributaries joining from each of the wings, and from another building that was apparently called the dorm. They marched us, the stench of our buckets strong in our nostrils, to an open space, with a newly dug trench, where we dumped the contents, then moved on to where a gang of prisoners with hoses sprayed the buckets more or less clean.
It was a demeaning, low-life thing. To make men pick up a bucket of their own filth and parade with it outside, while smirking screws held their noses and cracked jokes. No man should be made ashamed of the functions of his body and this first-light procession was designed to do just that. The grass grew long and green on the uneven ground in that open space, and it occurred to me that there were ninety years of prisoners’ turds lying beneath the green couch and buffalo grass.
After cell inspection we lined up again outside the dining hall for breakfast. I was given a bowl, a couple of lumps of porridge, a spoon, a pinch of brown sugar and a splash of milk. The bloke next to me was a teenager, had stolen a Holden EQ in Brisbane and driven it north before the coppers caught up with him locally. He had apparently tried to run down one of the arresting constables and they’d pinned him with attempted murder, which stank worse than the pit we’d emptied our buckets into a short time earlier.
There wasn’t only one exercise yard at Stewart’s Creek, but half a dozen of them. The MedSec yard had a bunch of men playing cards under a scrap of canvas. Others kicked footballs or lifted weights. A couple of prisoners who worked in the gardens sold produce. There was an old Afghan, with a beard down to his chest, and very old eyes. One man, plainly off his rocker, was swearing and yelling and carrying on, but no one paid him any mind. Least of all the screws.
I walked by myself in the sun, trying to think it all through, from the day I’d landed at the Wild Dog River. About that damned old medallion. Nolan and his passive-aggressive ways, and the hard men in a Cooktown Park. Then the murders of two good men. I had no answers, not yet anyway.
Later I was called to the visiting room, a heavily supervised space with light blue walls, filled with regret, anguish and yearning. A new lawyer sat on the far side of a desk, waiting for me. He was not a legal aid job – but a top Townsville solicitor I’d seen at the Cairns courthouse now and then. His name was Martin Beck and he wore made to measure suits, and a moustache so black and glossy it seemed not to be real. He represented company directors when they were caught writing themselves cheques, and the sons of rich families when they went off the rails.
‘Who’s paying you?’ I asked. ‘Mum hasn’t got any money.’
‘Your old boss at the Cairns Post – Brian Grayling. He’s a mate of mine and he reckons it’s the least he can do for you. He’d be here with us today except he’s down in Rocky for a couple of days. He sends his best wishes. Your brother Dave is also chucking in as much as he can.’
The lawyer spent an hour walking me through the events of that terrible day off Hope Island. I could tell that he didn’t believe me. But he scribbled in a pad the whole time.
Finally he rose and shook my hand. ‘Your brother says that he’ll be here to see you tomorrow. He says to keep your chin up. That he and your mum will do everything they can to get you out of here.’ The lawyer looked me in the eye. ‘Having said that, there’s a shitload of evidence stacked up against you. It won’t be easy.’
©2023 Greg Barron
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Continued next Saturday.
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