Aitch, Oprah and me

The runner-up in our spring writing competition.

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Browns and reds and yellows crunch underfoot. Fibro huts squat in their rows under rusting corrugated roofs. The next downpour menaces and it’s bloody cold.

I approach mine and hear the telly babbling. Aitch only ever watches Oprah during the day so it’s gotta be Oprah.

I stomp my big yellow gumboots and yank them off. I check for slimy deserters that might’ve done a runner from their Strzlecki Mountain home. My stomach is still churning from the drive down and around the winding tracks, slip-slopping through the waterlogged ranges, down further still to the cleft where the prison compound is stashed.

The boots remain outside. It’s only been a few weeks, but I’ve learned pretty quickly that Aitch has a thing about outside footwear and inside footwear. One of his many things.

‘Howdy Aitch.’

‘G’day Nicky-boy. Early?’

‘Yeah, looks like the weather’s gunna get ugly. Don’t reckon the screws wanna get stuck on the mountain. ‘Specially not on Friday arvo, right?’

He didn’t expect me to answer. I should know by now. We’ll yak after Oprah.

I drop onto my bunk, light a smoke and peel off my thick army-green socks for part two of the leech check. I don’t get how these fuckers break through my fortress of boots and socks. I suck harder on my durry and get to work on them with the glowing orange tip. All hope sizzles and splutters out of the little black fuckers.

‘Is this one of her older shows Aitch? I’m only saying. She’s looking pretty hot. I’m a big fan when she sheds some kegs.’

‘Make us a brew when you make yourself one.’

I’ve been told. It’s time to shut up. Aitch said he picked me to share his hut because he thought he’d learn something from a university student. I feigned disappointment that it wasn’t because of my rugged Grecian looks.

In my tenth month now, I’ve kinda got the mix right between self and gaol self—managing it well enough to not get fucked or bashed. (My friends reckon it’s hilarious I can’t even get a root in here.)

Aitch has been here since just before old mate Ronnie Ryan swung. Aitch was gunna swing too. He got commuted instead. It’s been thirty-something years. Dunno if he balances anything. He’s no open book our Aitch.

The plastic kettle gurgles for attention. The whistle’s fucked. I pour the boiled water onto the powder and hand Aitch his enamel mug.

He nods and places it on the pine side table. He made all the furniture in the hut. The pine armchair he is sitting in, pine bunks, pine shelves—so many swirling dark brown knots, and so much ageing yellow. Even the walls and the ceiling are lined. He reckons he made it all as some kind of homage to the surrounding plantations. Better than the peeling beige bluestone that’s been his home for decades I s’ppose.

My eye is drawn again to the tattered, unopened letter from Her Majesty. He’s been using this thing as a coaster for the past week or so; Harold Frederick Packer’s name is coffee-ringed in a dozen places.

Oprah gets all intense and serious and turns towards us. Today she’s soliloquizing about lost opportunities, and never too late, and tomorrow starting today… I hope he doesn’t see me roll my eyes.

‘Okay Aitch, I’m going for a tub’.

I walk across the compound. I’ve slung my towel, and a clean set of Her Majesty’s country attire over my shoulder; leprechaun-green trackie-pants, white bonds t-shirt, red, chequered flannel-shirt and navy–blue-jocks. (Actually the jocks are part of a 12-pack mum brought in.)

The skies are rumbling and ready to burst. A rickety footbridge over the Morwell River separates the huts from the amenities block. I step onto it and halfway across I pause, sensing the greying railway sleepers groan and tremble from the force surging beneath them.

Six weeks – I haven’t been here long enough to take the place for granted. This is the gaol most of us want to get reclassified to – where the ancient Eucalyptus Strzlecki replace the bluestone towers; blackberry thickets take the place of barbed wire; stretches of hills, valleys and waterways stand in for steel doors. Those bloody doors had separated me from my favourite Souvlaki joint on Sydney Road. There were nights in my stone and steel nightmare when I was sure the scent of crisping, rotating lamb wafted through the bars. One gyro, with double meat and double pitta and extra garlic sauce would’ve made everything better.

 

Not all doors are bad but. Shower stalls with doors–these alone are worth the four-hour journey I made from Pentridge. Four hours in a windowless, stainless-steel box on wheels, on stainless-steel bench seats, in stainless-steal handcuffs, with stale ham and chutney sandwiches in brown paper bags. (‘Ham and chutney. Fuck. Really?’ My friends like this, too).

The insipid hot water dribbles down my aching shoulders, arms and legs, and stings the freshly formed and broken blisters on my hands. The weight of the swinging machete and the futility of whacking at endless tangles of thorny weed around the breakneck hills of the pine plantations are unforgiving on my uninitiated student body. The only thing hard about me right now in this shower stall, is the erection I’m dealing with; Oprah steps towards me and I’m going down on her, and she’s pulling my hair and pounding her fists into my shoulders, shaking her head from side to side as her hips buck, and I shudder and spill on the fibro stall. Hope Aitch doesn’t mind.

 

***

 

‘You ever paid attention to advertisements for watches?’ Aitch would often speak to the ceiling, lying down, with his hands tucked underneath his head, and his legs crossed.

‘Harold Frederick Packer, the letter; we were talkin about the letter.’

‘The time. It’s always the same time.’

‘The letter, Aitch, come on–’

‘It’s always ten past ten.’

‘Mate, it’s been a week. Could be important. You could be getting a minimum. Could be nearly home time.’

‘Watch faces. They always look like they’re smiling. Real clever, these advertising pricks.’

‘I’ll open it for ya. Maybe I’ll bring you luck.’

‘I bet these clever advertising pricks went to uni too. A smiling watch is a happy watch.’

‘What would Oprah say, Aitch?’

‘And everybody wants a happy watch.’

‘Wouldn’t she say somethin like new tomorrow’s in your hands?’ I pick the coffee stained envelope up and wave it at him.

‘A happy watch means what… a happy time?’

Before I can think of something clever he turns on his side, this time speaking to the wall.

‘I wonder who first said; wind the watch to ten past ten before you take a pitcher of it.’

‘It could’ve been a fluke. It could’ve actually been ten past ten’.

This time he turns and faces me.

‘Which uni do you say you went to?’

 

***

 

The next downpour glowers and lumbers in the sky.

I fall out of the troop carrier after another day of thrashing in the hills and am immediately bashed around the ears by the compound sirens. I’ve only ever heard them during fire drills. The order to present for muster huffs around the camp. Jagged lines of leprechaun-green pants, lumberjack shirts and yellow gumboots form, uttering obscenities at the damned inconvenience of it all. The screws look pretty pissed off, too.

I can’t see Aitch anywhere, but that’s not unusual; for lifers, different rules apply.

The growls and barks of the camp dogs echo and swirl, clashing with the rising cacophony–what’s goin on-what’s goin on? The rain starts to clatter down.

 

 

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