Wild Dog River

Chapter Fourteen – Jackson and Slowacki

WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON

That feeling of being less alone in the world didn’t last. When they marched me back towards my cell the dark cloud that incarceration brings settled on me once more. As we headed through the main doors into the MedSec wing one of the screws gave me a shove, and I raised my hands protectively to my face.

Thinking that I was about to lash out, he swung an open-handed blow that caught me on the side of my head and made me stagger, my ear burning like someone had held a blowtorch flame to it. The other screw laughed.

I was learning that relations between warders and prisoners in Stewart’s Creek were beyond repair, fuelled by a cycle of hatred breeding disobedience, and violence that bordered on sadism. The Murris, particularly, were singled out for cruel treatment – called niggers and coons by some of the warders, who also chalked white supremacist bullshit on the walls and made the Hitler Youth look like choirboys.

Now it was my turn.

I hid the pain and watched the two screws out of the corner of my eyes as we headed to the cell. The name tags said Jackson and Slowacki. They were both around five-feet-ten or eleven, broad across the shoulders with thick arms honed from striking prisoners. Jackson was younger, with blonde spiky hair. Slowacki had the beginnings of a beer gut. Both had lips set with a permanent downward cast, miserable bastards by any measure. That morning I’d heard Slowacki having a go at one of the MedSec prisoners – a Cardwell bookkeeper who was in for embezzlement. Anyone could see that the bloke was too soft for this place – an easy target for these bullies, and a surge of hatred filled me up.

A clip on the ear was just a warmup for these screws – and antagonising prisoners was a sport. Jackson waited until I looked away, still heading down the corridor, then thrust a foot out, tripping me so that I flew headlong to the concrete, only recovering enough to break the fall with my hands while he and Slowacki laughed and shaped up, prepared to go on the attack if I came up swinging.

I was too smart for that. I got up, said nothing, and while a vein beat like a drum in my temple, I let them lock me back in my cell, feeling like I’d been fed through a mincer.

***

As the days went by my upcoming trial took form in my mind like a bloody monster and I was scarcely in control of myself, wired and jumpy. I tried not to show weakness in front of other prisoners or the screws, but I’d be a liar of I didn’t admit to helpless tears in the dark hours of the morning, with the snores of men I didn’t know or want to know echoing from those blood-impregnated stone walls.

Mum came to visit almost every day, usually but not always with Dave. As a remand prisoner, I was allowed physical visits and I could hug my mum. There is nothing, nothing on this earth like a hug from that sweet woman. I felt her tears rip at my heart, and her pain made mine multiply, and my determination to leave this place and vindicate myself, and tear apart the lives of the men who had done this to me became a torment.

In the days before the trial, while helping my solicitor build a defence, and dodging blows from Jackson and Slowacki, I found allies where I could. It turned out that I knew some of the other inmates. I’d played footy with two brothers by the name of McKrie, both redheads, great athletes who chose a career in armed robbery over the BRL. I’d been to school with some of the Murris too, and their last names were those FNQ extended family names where it’s impossible to remember brothers from cousins, second cousins and aunties and uncles.

There was also an old mate of my dad’s – a fella called Archie who shuffled around not bothering anyone. He recognised me and took a chair beside me in the dining hall one morning. We talked about my dad and the old days, and he said he knew I hadn’t done what everyone said – I was too well brought up, he reckoned. He told me to keep my head down and be humble and I’d be alright in here.

Brian Grayling, my old boss at the Cairns Post, visited too. He told me that he’d appear in court as a character reference. This made me feel a little better, but there was a distance in his eyes that had not been there before. He looked at me the same way people look at friends with cancer.

The day before the trial, Joseph the sweeper was in the exercise yard. I was keen to talk to him again. There was something about his stoic, steady face that I trusted.

I took a seat on one of the wooden benches backed by wire, in the shade of a mean little rain tree. Joseph sat down beside me, never looking directly at my face. There were old scars on his forearms, suggesting that he’d once worked very hard for a living, maybe cane-cutting, or ringing.

‘You said that you know things,’ I began. ‘That you hear things.’

‘Yeah, people forget when I’m around. Just an ol’ blackfellow wif a broom.’

‘You said that maybe you know something about my case?’

Joseph’s eyes as dark and full of promise as the new moon. ‘When that trial of yours gets all finished up,’ he said. ‘The Superintendent’s goin’ put youse in maximum security. Don’t let ‘em put you in C wing.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Bad fellas waitin’ for youse there.’

‘I don’t reckon on being back in here after the trial,’ I said. ‘I’ve got a good lawyer, and a barrister too, the best one in Townsville.’

Joseph gave me a knowing look.

‘If you know something else, spit it out, for Christ’s sake,’ I pleaded.

Still, he said nothing, and my voice took on an even more urgent tone. ‘Are you saying that I’ve got no chance at this trial?’

The old sweeper shrugged his shoulders, and there was nothing more to say. We sat there miserably together until the screw called time and we lined up at the gate like cattle, doomed to die at the abattoir.

©2023 Greg Barron

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Continued next Saturday.

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