I tippy-toe past the mats on the blokes’ side of the meditation hall. This time of morning, most are empty. The sheilas’ side’s full, same as most sessions. I dunno why there’s such a difference, but even at Compulsory, the sheilas are all there before even half the blokes have dragged our sorry arses in.
The cement floor’s cold enough to make my feet ache through my socks.
A couple of Managers sit up the front of the hall, side-on so they can watch our comings and goings. Their blue overalls stick out like dog’s balls with all our orange. One’s watching me. My eyes flicker past his, quick, so as not to cop a scalding. Pol Pot, I call that one. Nasty bloody piece of work, he is.
I tell myself not to, but I can’t help a quick peek across the strip of blue carpet that divides the blokes’ side from the sheilas’.
She’s still in the nest-building stage, up on a pile of cushions like the princess with the pea, with a rolled-up blanket under each knee, still learning how to sit cross-legged for an hour at a stretch. She’s bundled up in blankets like everyone else, just her head sticking out the top. Her eyes are squeezed shut, she’s pushing out her bottom lip. Beautiful, big, pouty lips.
Hot Lips, is how I think of her. It’s a kick in the guts, every time I look at her, but I can’t help myself.
I pull my blanket over my back at the same time as I sit on my cushion. I’ve been doing Practice long enough that my arms and legs just flop into place, natural as jelly in a mould.
“Just observe,” the guru says in Discourse. “Annicca. Remain equanimous. Annicca.”
Annicca, which means ‘everything ends’.
Hold your Practice for an hour – the guru calls it ‘Strong Determination’ – and your implant warms up the back of your neck to tell you you’ve just shaved sixty minutes off your sentence.
I shut my eyes, and begin.
Practice starts up on top of your head, at the spot that didn’t have any bone when you were born. You concentrate on that spot until you can feel what’s happening on the skin – if it’s itching, hot, cold, whatever. Then you work your way, a bit at a time, around the rest of your head, your ears, face, neck, down your back and front, your arms, and down each leg to your toes. Then you start over from the other end. You’re supposed not to think about anything else while you do it. And you’re not supposed to move: not to scratch an itch, give your back a rest, work some life back into a dead leg, nothing.
I don’t usually try for the hour at First Voluntary, just a quick once-over and then I’m out of there. I reckon it’s a nice way to start the day. If you try too hard to work your hours down, you just burn yourself out. I tend to save my Strong Determination for Compulsory, when I’m stuck in the meditation hall for an hour, anyway.
This morning I can’t even manage a once-over. I haven’t, since Hot Lips showed up. With my eyes shut, I see a pale face, with big dark lips grinning at me in the glare of headlights. I can hear her voice, singing off-key with the car radio. Silent meditation is hell when you’ve got Billy Ray bloody Cyrus stuck in your head. The muscles down the left side of my back screw themselves in knots.
Up front, someone gets up. I crack my eyelids. It’s Pol Pot. The bastard’s looking straight back at me, so I drop the shutters, quick. The sound of his fat thighs rubbing his pants together fills the hall as he walks along the carpet. I wait a few more minutes, then shrug off my blanket and get up myself.
I turn towards the sheilas’ side as I go. Hot Lips’s eyes are open, watching me sideways. They lock on mine, as dark as the ones I remember. Almost too long, before we both look away. A ten-day penalty, as well as the scalding, for contact with a prisoner of the opposite sex.
My heart’s banging as I hurry out of the hall. I stop outside and take a couple of deep breaths to slow myself down. The sky’s getting bright, but dawn’s still a good half-hour away. The maggies are just warming up. The only sound apart from the birds is the crunch of the dirt track under my rubber clogs.
I stop in at the toilet block. Someone’s having a shower. There usually is, this time of day. The lights have timed-out, but the room’s lit by the Tastic over the middle cubicle. I sit for a while on the loo, but I’m too uptight to get anything out. When I close my eyes, I see a sheila lying on gravel, all curled up like a baby. Her skin shines white in a car’s headlights.
Annicca, I tell myself.
The Tastic shuts off while I’m washing my hands. Whoever-it-is is still under the water, so I turn it back on for them before I leave. I’m too fidgety to go back to bed, but I don’t feel like trudging back up past the meditation hall to the walking area, either.
The breakfast bell sounds while I dither about, making my decision for me. I join the procession down to the bridge over the fishpond, to wait, on the big, odd-shaped deck, for the Managers to open the mess.
I queue with the rest of the blokes for porridge and stewed prunes. I leave it on the table nearest the window, claiming my place while I make a cuppa and grab a couple of pieces of toast. Most blokes do the same. Routine is what fills up your day, and gets you through. We crowd around the bench, reaching past each other for cups, knives, tea bags, spoons, honey, Vegemite, butter, and mostly manage it without getting in each others’ way.
One bloke gets a bump on the elbow as he tries to extract himself. His toast hits the floor.
“Shit,” he says, unthinking.
The bloke who bumped him apologises, just as instinctive.
Everyone else winces. Both of them clench their teeth and lift up on their toes, as their implants scald all their nerve ends at once. It’s the sort of thing that happens now and then. Funny how that kind of reflex speech doesn’t go away, even after you get to the point where, when you go to speak on purpose – like if you go to the Speaking Room to ask something from a Manager – you have to squeeze the words past the lump of fear in your throat.
The tables are lined parallel to the windows, with a bench on either side. Everyone faces the windows, except for one little Indian bloke, who sits in the corner looking baffled. I haven’t thought of a good name for him, yet. Not-Apu.
The smoke from yesterday’s bushfire is still hanging around, blocking the view across the valley. I eat the Vegemite toast first, then the porridge, then the honey toast, then take my tea outside onto the balcony. A bloke shuffles over to make space on a bench. The smoke’s thick enough to put a haze between us and the trees that run out to the edge of the cliff, half a kay away.
Sackcloth hangs between the sheilas’ half of the balcony and ours. I can hear a few of them moving about. I wonder if Hot Lips is one of them. My tea feels like it’s clogging my throat, too thick and milky.
Annicca. I concentrate on the view instead, of the treetops marching off into the smoke.
After breakfast, I take a shower and join the row of blokes at the washbasins, shaving or cleaning their teeth. I brush mine, then take a minute to comb a few flecks of dandruff out of my beard. I’ve been letting it grow since the last time the barber came. My hair’s dark, but my whiskers grow salt-and-pepper. It makes me look older. There’s grey in my hair now, too, that wasn’t there when they put me away. Today my eyes look bashed-in.
I drop my wash things back at the cell, hang my towel on the line outside. My cellmate, Taine, is back in bed, the blanket tucked under his arm. A Hei-tiki’s eyes cover his shoulder blades. He reminds me of an All Blacks captain from when I was a kid. I remember him leading the haka: Ka mate, ka mate! Ka ora, ka ora!
Our cell’s two by three metres, one in a row of five along this side of C Block. It’s got a column heater on the wall, a curtain across the sliding glass door, and our two beds. Spare overalls and undies go in the drawers under the beds. A wooden veranda goes the length of the building and keeps the sun out.
With his neck bent forward, Taine’s implant sticks up under his skin, an inch-long lump at the bottom of his skull.
In winter, I’d find him standing with his back to the heater, which came on three hours a day in the cold. He’d shuffle over to give me room and we’d stand, arses and legs pressed to the heater, shoulders against the wall to catch the warm on our backs. After a while, we’d both turn around, pressing the front of our thighs against the metal, just cool enough to rest bare hands on top.
I slide the flyscreen shut and head back up the path past the meditation hall. I need to walk.
A couple of Managers stand at the edge of the hall’s veranda, catching some morning rays. Pol Pot’s one of them. I can feel his eyes on me.
I used to think three months in here would beat doing the last eighteen of my sentence in general population, hands down. But no talking, no writing, no books, papers, mags, no web, no TV, music, eye contact, sign language, and all you’re left with is yourself, and what you’ve done, and Achy Breaky Heart.
It was the dope, the grog. A mistake. I didn’t know what I was doing. Excuses don’t cut it when you’ve got no-one to give them to.
The walking area’s a patch of bushland that goes out to the perimeter, criss-crossed with little tracks that go down and up the sides of a steep gully. I choose one that goes around the end of the gully and up over the crest on the other side.
I can see the white posts of the perimeter through the trees. The edge of the cliff’s only about a hundred metres further on. There’s no wire between the posts. Over the other side, where there’s no cliffs, razor wire keeps the tourists out, outside our perimeter and out of our sight.
Every so often, someone’ll go galloping down this hill and straight between the posts, thinking to throw himself off the edge. The place takes some blokes that way, especially early on. They don’t often get more than twenty metres past the perimeter before their implant puts them on the ground. The Managers don’t go and get them, unless they keep crawling for the cliff, so they flap about and scream until they can drag themselves back inside. Then the Managers check them over and take them down to the infirmary if they’ve hurt themselves. I saw one bloke who bit halfway through his tongue. I didn’t see him again. They must have taken him back to general pop.
The path ends at a t-junction. One side goes across into the sheilas’ compound. A wooden sign stands at the border: Go No Further. Women’s Area. A dirt road runs through on other side, blocked with a metal gate. Hot Lips is leaning on it.
Panic puts a chokehold on my throat. I’m about to turn away, hurry off, when she looks around. For the second time that morning, we almost get ourselves scalded. She looks away in time. Neither of us move.
Then she steps suddenly towards me, making me jump. She stops at the boundary sign, and closes her eyes, and starts to turn on the spot. I know I should go, but it’s an invitation I can’t pass up.
I dunno how close the similarity is, really, now I’m looking at her up close. Maybe I’ve just been seeing what I wanted to see. She’s average height, carrying a bit more weight than she should. Her posture’s good, back straight. She holds her shoulders back to show off her tits. Her hips are square. The body I remember is longer, leaner. Her skin’s darker than I remember, like milky tea. Her nose is thinner, I think, her face more square. Her lips are fat and wide and dark – Hot Lips. Those are just the same. She’s got crow’s feet by her eyes, laughter lines around her mouth. I don’t remember those, either, but my memories are all from the darkness of one dope-and-grog-hazed night.
I wonder what she’s in for.
She finishes her circle, opens her eyes. A smile curves those big fat lips. My turn. She’s waiting for me. My mouth’s dry as sandpaper as I shut my eyes.
I spin too far, end up sideways to her.
The smile’s a grin, now. She gives her arse an extra bit of swing as she walks away.
It’s a while before I shift myself. What we’ve just done muddles up in my head with flashes of glare and shadows, wrestling, fighting, sex, until I dunno where I am. I’ve gone about a dozen paces up the hill when the crying comes on, bending me over like I’m going to puke, strong enough that I have to sit down.
I’m all the way back in the dark. The lights shine on a sheila’s bare arse and legs as she lies on her side. Her dress is pulled up around her ribs. She’s got scratches and scrapes all over her skin. I can hear her crying over the idle of the car’s engine. My head spins. My lip stings where she hit me.
I put my head on my knees, grab my hair, like if I pull it out at the roots, it’ll pull all the memories out with it.
Annicca, I tell myself. Annicca, annicca. It’s like drinking a cupful of dust.
Pol Pot’s loitering at the edge of the walking area.
My ribs won’t expand to let me get breath. I look away, make to walk past, but he holds up a hand to stop me and I know for sure that we’re busted. How? Why the hell didn’t we get scalded? I stare at the cleft in his chin. It disappears when he smirks.
He holds up his hand again, index finger up. He wags it from side to side, then closes his fist. He could talk, but it’s obviously too much bloody fun not to. He extends all five fingers, closes them again, repeats. Then twice more.
Twenty days. The bastards are giving us twenty days. It should only be ten. The rules say ten. I open my mouth, close it again. Arguing about it’ll just earn me ten more. I dig my fingernails into my palms.
He watches me for a while, then he holds up his other hand, shows me his remote. Vicious fuck. He points it at me.
A scalding’s like the Chinese burns you give each other as kids, only inside and out, from the top of your scalp to the tips of your fingers and the soles of your feet, and straight down the middle, from your teeth to your arsehole, at the same time. It’s gone as fast as it comes. There’s no damage done, they say, the implant just fools you into thinking there’s pain everywhere.
I try my damnedest to keep it off my face, but the shock lifts me up on my feet. The thought of him doing the same thing to Hot Lips makes me angry enough to kill. I imagine myself punching his nose until it’s flat, smashing his smug face into the middle of his head.
He points. “Tank.”
My legs don’t want to do their job, but buggered if I’ll let myself stumble. It’s only a short walk to the round block beside the meditation hall. Pol Pot unlocks a door, still smirking as he waves me inside with the remote. I step in to a pie-slice cement cell. The door swings shut behind me, bolts clunk. I’m in darkness.
I put out a hand to find a wall, set my back against it and slide down. Eyes open or shut, it doesn’t matter. I can’t get rid of the vision of him scalding her. The sheila in my imagination is somewhere between Hot Lips and the other I remember. She must be in the Tank, too. Billy Ray mocks me from the blackness. I pound my fists on the floor until they hurt.
Annicca. Everything ends. Bloody please.
Faintly, I hear the bell for First Compulsory.
Well, what the hell else am I going to do? I assume the position. My arse is numb already, sitting on the hard cement. My back hurts. Annicca. And fuck you, anyway.
Compulsory always starts with a recorded Discourse from the guru. I must’ve heard all of them at least a dozen times. Discourse is followed by a few minutes of the guru’s chanting. I can imagine his voice clearly, slow and deep. It drowns out Billy Ray. I know the words off by heart, not that I’ve got a clue what they mean, since he’s singing in some Indian jabber. There’s one particular tape where the guru has a coughing fit, about three quarters of the way through. There’s a tickle in my throat when I get to that part.
I do Practice once over from head to toe, then back again, holding my concentration in spite of the dead pain in my arse. Just observe. Remain equanimous. Then I sweep through my body, like my mind’s a cat-scan, taking pictures of myself in hundreds of little slices.
My hands are clasped in my lap, so that my palms face each other. When I sweep, I can feel energy jump the air gap between them. I imagine a beam of light, shining up from the top of my skull. I dunno where it’s shining to. I just hope it’s taking all the shit away.
A memory floats up, a recent one.
I was standing on the deck outside the mess one day, early for a meal. Taine and a couple of other blokes were settled in by the fishpond, dangling their legs over the water while the carp came up in their shadows to blow them kisses.
A magpie caught my eye, chasing something through the grass. At first I thought it was a cricket: it was light brown and hopped away with a chirp when the bird pecked at it. The maggie watched where it landed, then ran after and pecked it again. This time I got a better look as it jumped and realised it was a little frog. They did the same routine a couple times more, until the frog was too injured to hop. It thrashed about and chirped while the maggie pecked it. The frog was still moving, so the maggie picked it up by the head and gave it a shake.
Then, with the frog in his mouth, the bird stopped and looked up at me. Checking whether I was planning to pinch his meal, maybe. He walked a little way away, looked back again and decided I was still too close, so he ran off down the path and ducked behind a tree to eat his lunch.
I used to be a magpie, I said to him silently at the time, but now I’m just a frog.
Now I realise: I am the maggie, still. This time I’m not crying for me.
I feel the warmth in the back of my neck.
It’s a while longer before they let me out. When the door swings open, it blinds me. I cover my eyes against the glare. A hand hooks my armpit. The Manager has me on my feet before I realise it’s not Pol Pot.
He shoves me out the door, turns me onto the path around the meditation hall. My eyes are watering. My legs are numb. I try to see if they’re taking Hot Lips out of the Tank at the same time. The Manager catches me looking and twirls his finger in the air. Turn around.
Pins and needles start in my feet. He has to hold me up, all the way back. We’re at the fishpond before I realise we’ve gone past the cellblocks. He doesn’t stop, and I realise lunch must be on. He lets go of me at the doorway.
I can feel the other blokes’ eyes on me as I get myself a plate and cutlery. They would’ve noticed I was missing from Compulsory. There’s not much left of the meal, the usual brown slop of dhal. I scrape up three-quarters of a plateful and go straight outside to the balcony.
Taine’s out there, finishing his cuppa. He waits until I’ve choked down my dhal, then reaches under his seat and brings out a plate with two muffins on it. He puts it on the bench between us. The cheeky bugger’s saved me some dessert.
I choose one. He has the other. I want to cry again, but I can’t keep a smile off my dial. A maggie arrives to scavenge leftovers. Taine tips out the muffin crumbs for him as he leaves. He’s a good bloke. I’d like to know his real name.
I toss the last of my muffin to the maggie. Thanks, bird.
The smoke’s cleared a bit and I can see the white sails of the wind farm across the valley. I feel shaky, but okay. I sit a while longer, then go back to the cell to collect my toothbrush, and wander over to the toilet block.
A Manager sprints past.
It’s the bloke who got me out of the Tank. I see another running between the cellblocks further away. Heading for the sheilas’ compound. They only run when someone’s gone through the perimeter and not stopped.
I break into a run. Up around the meditation hall, down the gully and back up the other side. Down to the corner that abuts the sheilas’ area.
My lungs burn, my legs shake. I still have my toothbrush.
I can see blue overalls through the trees. They’re a long way away, close to the edge. A couple of other blokes arrive. There’s a clump of sheilas over their side, by the gate. Hot Lips isn’t one of them.
It’s a long while before the Managers come back. They don’t come into the compound, but skirt the perimeter, a distance away. I can’t see any orange among them, only blue.
They’ve left a couple of their number by the cliff. A while later, a rescue chopper thumps overhead.
Her place is empty at Second Compulsory. So is Pol Pot’s.
Did he tell her why I’m in? Is that what pushed her over?
During Discourse, the Manager who fetched me from the Tank squats beside my mat. “Come to the Speaking Room after the session,” he says.
Not my fault, I want to shout. Not my fault this time.
The sun angles across the mess hall balcony, up to my chest when I sit on the bench. I kick off my clogs and warm my feet on the boards. There’s bits of cloud over the valley. Shafts of sunlight shine through.
I pick up my orange, peel the rind with my fingernails. My hands shake, but I go slow and get the rind off in one long strip, without digging into the flesh. Then I pluck off the pith, and split the orange into quarters.
In my mind’s eye, she’s facing me. I look at her mouth. Those big lips curve into a smile. Then I see her lying at the bottom of the cliff, all broken up. She looks surprised. Her expression twists, turns into a different face, and a snarl of anger and fear. It stretches into a scream.
Everything ends, except for that.
Juice spatters the boards between my feet. Sheilas walk by, underneath. I can see them through the gaps in the wood.
(c) Ian McHugh, 2007