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Excerpt from The Lie That Settles
There was a black wind-up phone in the ticket office. The operator chattered away as she connected me to the prison number. I got the impression she had not had a call to deal with all night. There was an unfamiliar lilt to her voice. Could it be Māori? She didn’t charge me for the call.
‘Waikune Prison.’ The owner of the voice was obviously none too pleased at being wakened at that time in the morning.
‘It’s Peter Farrell.’ I thought a laconic and easygoing image should find acceptance.
‘There’s no Peter Farrell here, mate.’
‘No. Sorry. I’m Peter Farrell. I’m starting work there tomorrow,’ I said. I had done my research and knew the first rule for being accepted – avoid reference to England and never, ever, make unfavourable comparisons.
‘You the new Pom?’
‘Yes. I’ve just come off the Auckland train. There doesn’t seem to be any transport up here. The station’s all closed up.’
‘Not surprised. Old Ron usually gets pissed on Fridays.’ Ron must be the stationmaster, I thought. ‘It’s not bloody Piccadilly Circus, mate. I suppose you’re expecting a taxi.’ The edge had returned to his voice.
‘Nah, don’t worry about it. I’ll just bunk down here till morning,’ I said, eyeing the old wooden station bench doubtfully.
‘No need to do that. They left the camp van up there somewhere for you. The keys will be in it. Just go up to the main road and turn right. It’ll take you about half an hour.’ He seemed to have relaxed a bit.
‘I don’t have a New Zealand licence.’ I didn’t like to admit that I had no driving licence of any sort, having failed my test three times.
He reverted to his earlier dismissive tone. ‘Christ. I sometimes wonder how you bastards ever won the war. Just find the bloody van and drive it. We’ll sort out the paperwork later.’
The Bedford van was some distance from the station. New Zealand Government was painted in white on the grey bodywork and the door was pitted with rust. I loaded on my bags and nervously climbed into the cab. I found the ignition and the van coughed into life. Coordinating the clutch and gears had always been my downfall and I stalled the motor twice before pulling away in a spray of gravel. By the time I got to the main road I discovered which of the mysterious switches turned the lights on. Then, unencumbered by other traffic, I found my confidence growing.
The headlights picked out a narrow, unsurfaced road. The occasional wisp of foliage reached out of the bush and trailed against the windscreen. By the time I swung into the prison camp, I felt I could easily be mistaken for an experienced driver. Waikune was a low security prison. But for the floodlit compound, the prison buildings had the appearance of a large, unkempt motel rather than a prison. Prisoners were evidently locked down and checked at night, but there were no walls or fences to be seen. The authorities obviously felt the inhospitable mountain bush surrounding the prison for miles around was containment enough.
I saw smoke spiralling up from the wooden houses dotted around the perimeter of the compound. A few grey trucks were parked carelessly. I followed the lights to what looked like a reception area and jumped down from the van. There was a smell of bacon in the air. This was to be home.
A blue-uniformed figure emerged from the reception area. ‘Welcome. I’m Colin.’ He smiled and shook my hand. This was the owner of the clipped, irritable voice on the phone. He was far less intimidating in person.
‘I’ll show you to the single jokers’ quarters. That’s where we eat. Breakfast is in half an hour.’ He took one of my bags and ambled off with me in tow.
With no wife around, I was to be treated as a single joker. This meant I had my own room in the single men’s compound, but that was the limit of my privacy. The single men’s quarters looked like a modern extension of the prison itself. Each tiny room had an identical layout with an iron bedstead, a sink and a wooden desk. There was no chair. One wall of the room I was shown into was plastered with curling, sun-blued posters of Dusty Springfield. I was a long way from the London Palladium and beehive hairdos. I unpacked my suitcase. It didn’t take long. It was time to go in for breakfast.
‘I’m Henry.’ The inmate kitchen hand was immaculately turned out in carefully pressed whites. ‘I do the breakfast cooking for the jokers coming off the night shift. What do you want? We got mince, lamb chops, eggs, anything really. He fussed over the stainless-steel trays, waiting for my answer. ‘You must be absolutely stuffed after all that travel.’ He seemed concerned. I was hardly Captain Cook, but it was good to have someone acknowledge the extent of my journey.
Henry was the only inmate allowed in the single officers’ quarters. I was ‘the new Pom.’ We were both outsiders. I was soon to learn a lot from him about how to fit in with my new colleagues.