Today is the final day of my Old Melbourne Gaol residency.
The sun is not as I’ve been remembering, but hangs forlorn, choked brown by plumes from smokestacks that have gone up all around. I’d imagined it, at least, would greet me like an old friend. But it is wary. By noon it has taken itself off behind low clouds, and them behind the smoke. The streets I knew have turned to walls themselves and this world seems but a different grey. People hunch. Birds do not sing. I know a place where men and women and creatures swagger beneath skies that are rarely anything but blue. It will cost me a pretty penny to get back there. So it is I spend the afternoon of my release planning my escape.
Labourers are a dime a dozen. Lonnie knows he’ll have work in good times but only his wits when jobs are scarce, which is trouble. Lonnie knows. He knows about walls like these. Their familiar shape. He knows about exercise yards.
Carter, the foreman, is a hard man. Lonnie half considers a change of plan but now’s not the time. He makes a note of the stones, fires a glance either side, then draws a blade from his sleeve. He lays it at the edge of a thick line of mortar that he’s mixed soft,
Just in case, he mutters as he trowels the mix quickly across. North wall, four lines up, five blocks from the right. The job is done. Carter can wait.
The day I scratch the mark that marks two years
a bird arrives to tug a weed that spreads
between my bars, for nesting. Lest it disappears
I offer it some tattered blanket threads.
Now threadbare, worn to nothing, five years hence
that blanket offers no warmth in the chill
but warmth comes daily when my bird descends
now to my bunk, our trust so that it will
exchange for strands such gifts as please me best.
It brings me shiny things. Some buttons bright,
some coins the guards are happy to accept,
some bottle tops that glisten in the light,
some nails, which I sharpen to a point,
some bullets from a lazy copper’s joint.
A man has the right to expect certain things. He has a right not to have his work put at risk by the equipment he uses. That’s my belief. I take a pride. I’m up with the latest literature. Before each job I check and recheck everything. I do the calculations three times over. I leave nothing to chance. So why is it that now, with the moment so close at hand, the governor proudly shows me the new rope he’s got up for me.
It’s four strands, I says.
Is it, he says.
Rope’s rope, he says.
Three strand’s what I need, I says.
One more for luck, he says.
Don’t tell me about luck, I says.
There but for the grace of God, he says, and he orders me to attention, and while I wait, footsteps ringing slow on the galley iron, I do the sums in my head and then I says to the fella as he passes, sorry, which I hoped I’d never have to say. And when he drops I turn away.
If they flogged me it would be no worse, but I’m a woman so they won’t. They haven’t the guts. Instead, they give me the shirts from the men’s wing and they tell me to wash away the blood and salt and the fluid like custard that seeps from the wounds. And when I can’t clean them, ‘cos there aint nothing can clean that stain, they take away what they call my privileges. Ha. And they march me between the cells, slowly, because they think the words will sting. They strip me and spit on me and throw me in the confinement cell. For my own good, they say. But what’s the use, they say, because no good ever came to a baby farmer like you. Lower than a dog. Shows what they know. Those children was marked before they was ever brought to me. Most before they was born, I reckon. The guards think they’ll break me. But bluestone blocks for dirty lanes or prison walls is all the same. Cobbles and dust; all I’ve ever known.
They closed the place after the riot. Within ten years the roof in the north wing had collapsed. After the fires I was hired to stop the vandalism and the theft. I chased out squatters and bums and freaks looking for kicks. I rehung the old doors and refitted iron bolts to them. Once the place was secure the job was easy. A bit of maintenance during the day, then I’d do my rounds before settling into my quarters for the night.
I had it pretty good until the day the locks jammed. Every one closed up as tight as if there never had been an opening. The power and phone lines went down. And from the exercise yard the dull echo of a slow march I’d grown used to turned to chaos and cries of vengeance.
There are many ways information can be acquired. It can be bought or stolen or had by intimidation. It can be discovered, either by accident or design, or, most commonly, by the fortuitous combination of both. It can come in a dream.
I have taken three years to learn, in various ways, the following things; the habits of each and every guard and each and every inmate, the design of the buildings right down to the plumbing, the best ways to hide small tools, the manufacture of rope from sheeting scraps, a technique to muffle noises in my cell, the exact timing of shift changes, and the recipe for a soft paste indistinguishable from the mortar between the stones.
Tonight I begin tunnelling. I do not fear the dogs or guns. I do not fear the deadly drops from the outer wall. I do not fear the loose lips of those whose knowledge came hardest, for they have been silenced. The only thing I fear is that I do not know what it is I might have missed.
All the important buildings are on the hill, which is why the cathedral is so close to the prison that from the exercise yard you can hear the bells. When they ring loud and long in the afternoon I know that a couple are being married. That’s when I say to the guards, put me back. Lock the door again. That’s when I go to the darkness and silence willingly. When low spirits weigh on me worse than chains. But when the bells ring slow and lonely like sledge-hammer strikes at the end of the day, and each strike floats and dies before the next, that’s when I feel a kind of happiness, as if I could have played my part if only I’d been free to do so.
I’ve just started a month long writing studio residency at the Old Melbourne Gaol . While writing in my 19th-century cell I’ll be posting a series of pieces inspired by the stories of this place.