Wild Dog River

Chapter Twenty-three – The Superintendent


December 1973, and storms were gathering on every front. Each afternoon thunderheads formed black columns over Mount Stuart, that towering Townsville landmark. With the clouds came sweating, sodding humidity that built to torturous levels, along with lightning forks and thunder. Every living creature craved rain that did not fall. Instead, the clouds melted away into the night and we prisoners, stacked like oysters in a tin, were left gasping for air.

Politically, a clash of Titans was developing. The Queensland Premier, Joh Bjelke-Peterson, went head-to-head with Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, vowing to destroy his government. Meanwhile Joh was turning his police force into storm troopers, ripping condom machines from university toilet walls and raiding abortion clinics, getting protesters off the street. I wished I was back in the ranks of the press, covering the growing controversy.

The final storm was inside the prison itself. C-Wing was a tough environment, though the majority of inmates were, like me, just trying to get by in a difficult environment. Stand-over men had targeted me on ‘buy-up’ day, but since this was mainly aimed at the purchase of cigarettes, which I did not need or want, the loss of my entitlement had not troubled me too much.

There was no need to learn names. Everyone had a nickname. Some that I remember were Monster, Creep, Blue, Tugger, Latch, Poss, Snowy, Stretch and Lips.  There were, however, genuine hard men that you did not ever want to cross, and more than a few mad bastards who went off at the drop of a hat and were best avoided. The Murris mostly kept to themselves, and I knew a couple from school. That was enough to keep me on-side.

A tight little group of three men were my main worry. I was pretty sure that these were the ones that Joseph the sweeper had warned me about.  One of them I recognised from the Wild Dog Camp – a big round-headed bastard with small black eyes. He’d arrived at the prison a week or two after my trial, serving a stretch for being found with two SKS rifles in his car near Ingham. His nickname was Chiz, though I have no idea why.

The other two were tough bastards, but not regular prison heavies. One had a scar on his upper lip, apparently from the long-ago impact of an iron bar. The other had a red rash up his neck and on the side of his face.

This little gang had not yet approached me. Yet, I knew that they were watching. Two of the three arranged transfers to the garden crew, where I worked – the other man’s rash was apparently some kind of dermatitis and he needed an inside job. All day I felt their eyes on me. At the mess hall the trio sat close enough to hear my conversations.

Their ‘watch and listen’ policy changed on the day the Superintendent sent for me.

My cell was a two-out, which meant that it housed two prisoners. It contained iron cots, a screwed-down table, and a latrine bucket. After breakfast and the emptying of these buckets we had thirty minutes in the cells before work details began, and I’d spend it lying on the bed, writing to mum, or reading the latest Catherine Gaskin or Jon Cleary novel that came around on the library cart. Sometimes I scanned through a Courier Mail or Cairns Post.  

My cellmate was Marty Roemer, the Townsville baker who I’d met on the first day of my trial, now serving six months non-parole. He was determined to keep his nose clean, get out as fast as he could. He lived for visits from his wife and kids – twice a week as reliable as night and day. He had special permission from the Superintendent to keep his wedding ring on his finger. Although I knew that Marty and grog did not mix, sober he was a good man, and I liked him.

I’d just put the newspaper aside one morning, when Jackson and Slowacki appeared at the open door, sneers glued to their lips.  ‘Hey Livermore,’ said Slowacki, always the mouth, ‘the Super wants to see ya. Right now.’

I looked up, surprised, then came to my feet and followed. Even at Induction I hadn’t met the Superintendent, though I’d seen him plenty of times, strutting around the place. I walked out through the wing with my two escorts, light on my feet in prison-issue Dunlop sandshoes. The gardening kept me fit, and I had lost some weight, living on the shit that passed for food in the dining hall.

We passed by the central watchtower. This was the eye at the centre of the Stewart’s Creek prison, laid out as it was like a giant wheel, with each of the wings extending like spokes. This layout allowed the guards in the tower to observe most of the facility. It had an extended walkway in two directions and a whitewashed column with sockets for clocks that had never been fitted above it. The guards, with their Armalite rifles, looked down on us as we went by. Bored out of their minds, prisoner movements were their only entertainment, sometimes raising their rifles and following prisoners through the peep sights just to unnerve us.

The Super’s office was part of the main gatehouse structure, which included administration areas, storage of personal effects, prison officer facilities and induction areas. The two screws paused at a locked door of heavy iron and asked me to extend my wrists so they could cuff me.

This done, Jackson pressed a buzzer and another screw opened the door from inside. They walked me up a brick and concrete staircase and down a corridor to a door with a brass plaque on it. Dr Warren Spencer. The Super had, apparently, a PhD in psychology. The press made a big deal of that every time there was a riot or murder at the gaol. I guess it made him seem modern and sensitive.

Jackson knocked. I didn’t hear the response, but I guess there must have been one, because he turned the latch and pushed the door open. The Super got up from his desk when he saw us come through.

‘We’ve got prisoner 42633 here sir,’ said Slowacki.

‘Thanks fellas. Let him in and wait outside the door until I call you.’

I stepped into the room, handcuffed wrists in front of me and waited, trying not to stare but studying the man nonetheless. Standing, he was a little shorter than me. He looked like something from the Aunty Jack show, with thick spectacles, corduroy trousers, white shirt and brown suspenders. His hair was receding on top, but still thick on the sides, plastered down with Brylcreem.  

The room smelled of mould and dust. The blinds were half drawn, and the lighting feeble. It was a soulless room, where rules and decisions were made, so that men in their cells might suffer a little more, for the sake of a few dollars saved from the prison’s bottom line.

The Super opened a case on the desk, removed a cigarette and held it out to me. ‘Smoke?’

I shook my head, feeling the revulsion rise up in my guts. I’d seen men like him before: office managers, school headmasters and politicians. Just because someone pins a badge to their chest or gives them a title, they think that they now belong to some better species, their veins infused with some rare blood type that makes them superior humans. They patronise. They control. Their smiles are for their own benefit, not yours, for they dream of their own goodness.

The Super fitted the cigarette to a holder, lit the tip and took a drag. He seemed to be sizing me up. He made no attempt to shake my hand, just stood back, pursing his lips to direct streams of smoke towards the slowly revolving ceiling fan. ‘I guess you’re wondering why I had you brought up here,’ he said.

‘A bit,’ I said.

The Super twisted his face in annoyance. ‘Let’s keep this formal,’ he said. ‘Every time I ask you a question, I want you to reply with “yes” or “no Mr Superintendent”. Got it?’

These bastards never let the mask slip for long.  ‘Yes, Mr Superintendent.’

‘Well, here’s a question – hypothetical, mind you. You’re in here for thirty-seven years minimum. Right?’

The sentence hurt enough without this little man repeating it. I forced myself to reply. ‘Yes, Mr Superintendent.’

‘Well let’s just imagine, for a moment, that you knew about something of significant value. It would be useful to have a friend with access to the outside who could help to obtain this item of value – partly for your future benefit of course.’

I did not reply, but my mind was moving frantically.

‘There would be many benefits,’ he went on. ‘This friend would also be able to ensure that you are treated much better than most prisoners.  Classification changes ahead of time. You could have the work you wanted – the prison library perhaps. Nice food … and even a special kind of visitor occasionally, if you know what I mean.’

I knew what he meant, but these were empty words. He was fishing, that was all, his imagination working overtime. ‘I’m sorry Mr Superintendent, but I know nothing about an item of value.’

His demeanour changed. ‘Oh come on, boy? Am I the only man on earth who noticed that your trial came up in record time? Then it was done and dusted in three and a half days. The cops all sang the same tune like trained budgies.’ He lowered his voice. ‘Someone’s pulling strings, people in high places know things, and I’m offering you the hand of friendship.’

‘I don’t know anything, Mr Superintendent.’

He stubbed his cigarette out. ‘I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this. I’ve got some ideas. Let’s just say for a minute that you were telling the truth about the bronze medal you obtained up north. Both your mates on board the Naika had seen it, and that’s why they had to be killed, so they couldn’t back up your story. The question is, why didn’t they kill you? Fascinating isn’t it? Maybe they wanted to keep you alive in case they need you later on. Maybe it was easier just to frame you up – or most likely – they didn’t want to kill an ex-serviceman like you.’ He went back and leaned his bum on the desk. ‘My experience is that people only kill for passion, or they kill for money. The kind of carry-on we saw at your trial has me convinced that this might involve a fortune.’

‘I doubt that very much, Mr Superintendent.’

He studied me for a long time, maybe a minute. ‘I don’t believe you, but like I said, you’re here for many years. That time can go easy, or it can go hard. Let’s see how you feel in a couple of weeks.’

The Superintendent walked to the door and opened it. The two screws dropped their smokes into a floor ashtray and stood up straight.

‘Well done, Officers Jackson and Slowacki. Take this man out to work, then carry on with your duties.


Those two bastard screws took me out to the garden detail with no hat. I had left it in my cell and they refused to let me get it. The December sun was merciless, and by lunch time my cheeks, forehead, neck and ears were painful with sunburn.

I sensed that Chiz and Scar-lip now watched me even more intensely than usual. We were chipping out weeds, and I constantly had to move away from them. At around two in the afternoon, I was behind one of the garden sheds, hosing off a brace of rakes and hoes. One grabbed me from behind and whipped a loop of garden hose around my neck.

Chiz punched me in the gut, then took a handful of my hair, ‘What did you tell the Superintendent?’

‘Nothing,’ I croaked, staring. He had a round face, with fluff on the lower part of his chin like an adolescent.

‘What did he want to know? Why did he send for you?’

I couldn’t breathe. Tears of pain ran down the stinging red skin of my face.

‘You shut your mouth, right?’ Chiz went on. ‘Keep your head down, say nothing and serve your time.’ He drew a homemade shiv – looked like it was made from a fragment of steel machine-shop belt, and held it to my neck. ‘Say one word to anyone and we’ll cut your throat out.’

They left me on my knees, the hose still running, trying to get breath through my crushed throat. I felt like nothing. A fucking conscript, taken away from a life of boozy crabbing trips up the creeks, spearfishing and a lazy job as a cadet journalist at the local paper, and brought to this hell-on-earth for so many years I could not see or imagine the end of it.

For the first time in my life, I barely wanted to live at all.

©2023 Greg Barron

Continued next Saturday.

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