The wires sparked and sawed in tensile friction, as the keys still attached to the taught pitched lengths of garrotting material provided snatches of mocking tinkling and chiming on the smoke scored breeze.
The attack’s aftermath had left the remaining telegraph wires supported by tilted and splintered, though still gallantly upright poles.
The wires were draped unceremoniously with the remnants of the piano shop that had previously occupied the far end of the same road.
Daliesque in its melted and confused effect, the innards from the Chappell & Co. upright piano were left dangling over the wires by the last series of detonations from the previous night’s Luftwaffe bombing raid.
A humming accompanied the higher registers of this strung up and strangled key change with a haunting and muted echo of history’s consequence. Strangely, the source of this baseline came not from the nearby short circuiting electrical substation, but the melodious throat of Sid Hager, who was musing to himself on just how the water had managed to escape from the front yard’s pond while leaving the fish behind.
Waste not, want not. We could always fry ‘em up for dinner, he thought.
Sid was nothing if not practical – in both nature and by need. A tailor by trade from London’s East End, he was used to figuratively and literally cutting corners during a time of such privation. Not that the quality of his work suffered for lack of materials, as he was a consummate mender of the moment and improvised like a virtuoso.
Even on the outskirts of London, they did not escape the barrage hurled at them nightly by the Germans from across the Channel.
Dagenham and Romford had seemed isolated enough at the outbreak of the Blitz and yet, with each sounding of the air raid siren, the damage done was a reminder that its citizens were not nearly far enough removed from the epicentre of the destruction and carnage to escape a spiteful smack in the face to their emblematic stoicism.
Westbourne Rd. displayed its own collection of bomb damaged buildings and craters which made the street in parts almost impassable to traffic.
Fortunately, as far as Sid was aware, those houses struck and half destroyed by recent raids were mercifully vacant thanks to evacuation proving too persuasive for their inhabitants.
The Hagers had remained steadfast in their determination not to leave, unless conditions became unendurable or the local authorities refused to continue to permit Sid’s role as borough councillor to act as a self-indulgent bulwark to civil safety.
Besides, Westbourne Rd. was long and the eastern end occupied by the Hagers had escaped relatively unscathed.
This was as near a miss as they had experienced so far.
Sid smoothed his officiously groomed moustache with his left thumb and forefinger and wondered if it were now too close.
“Two hundred yards’ shy or 12 miles, take yer pick son.”
This was addressed over Sid’s shoulder to his youngest son Stan, who he had sensed standing behind him without so much as a cleared throat for attention.
Stan had emerged from the Anderson shelter in the front yard, having finished his cleaning and sorting duties following their night of enforced intimacy.
“We were lucky aright, dad”, Stan observed as he came to stand next to his father.
Sid was a short man of 42 years and already Stan at 13 was a head greater in height.
“Mum has taken Mary in to change her. I’ve finished cleaning up the shelter too”, he declared triumphantly, duty accomplished.
“Should hope so too, Stan. This is a time when we cannot afford to shirk our responsibilities. Go and fetch us a cuppa, like a good lad.”
“Already done dad”, Stan informed his father almost boastfully.
“I put the kettle on to boil first thing before I tidied up.”
Sid had failed to notice the tin mug his son held cradled in his hands and which he then respectfully proffered his father.
“I think that ol’ Hager sixth sense is starting to make itself felt for you boy.”
This was almost like praise coming from Sid, who was not necessarily always forthcoming with encouraging comments.
“Sorry about the milk, but mum says we’re out of it until we get a new ration
“Black and strong will do me just fine. I’ll have a word to the dairy man.”
“Do you think it’s time to leave, dad? Should Mary and I go to stay with the cousins in Essex?”
“It’s early days yet. I think the war has a long way to go and things will get a lot worse. There’s time enough and as long as there is a single Birch tree still standing this end of the road on the square, life will endure.”
It sounded like Sid had taken heart from Mr. Churchill’s latest wireless address.
“But what will we do about the fish?”
Sid took a mouthful of tea and slowly removed his gaze from the fizzing overhead wires. So great was the blast from the nearest detonation that the shockwaves had knocked over electricity poles like dominoes, with the resultant shorting of the power supply causing brief intermittent surges and sparks, before the deadening smoke joined the crisp early morning spring air.
A few windows of the Hager home had also been blown out.
“The fish are the least of our worries. I’m surprised they didn’t leave sooner, what with hardly anything decent left to feed ‘em.”
Pestered for an explanation, Sid tried patiently to explain what had happened to the water in the small pond atop the dug-in Anderson shelter.
“Well, it’s kind of a like a big vacuum I suppose - the air that’s blown out when the bomb explodes is sucked back into the blast, taking the water with it.”
He paused. “Not sure really. Ask Mr. Casey when school goes back.”
“What will we do with the fish?”
“Why, eat ‘em of course”, Sid Hager pronounced as if it were the only solution.
“What about the pond?”
“That will give mum another flower bed to fill. We’ll just need a few barrows full from the Square and she can start planting.”
Before Stan could even fully form the first word about to emerge from his partially open mouth, his father reminded him of his community status:
“Remember, I am on council and I act in community interests. Besides, it would make mum happy.”
That was all it took.
The previous night had not really been all that cramped, as eldest son Nigel,21, was stationed with the 5thAnti-Aircraft Division at Reading, while eldest sister Alma,18, was not always home as she worked night shifts as a nurse at one of the evacuation centres on the outskirts of London.
So, it was only Sid and his wife Hilda with Stan and little 3-year-old Mary who had to make do at night when they sought refuge in the garden’s centrepiece.
The Anderson shelter was something to behold.
It had become the feature of the Hager’s street frontage since being issued and then put in place some six months earlier.
Now in the early spring, the adornments created by Hilda were coming into their own.
Not that the road or their end of it had lacked for decoration or practical use of space before self-preservation had become a nightly routine.
Only that now it had become a thing of pride and a way to thumb your nose at the crouts by turning the shelter into an expression of horticultural defiance.
The Hagers had done alright for themselves since Sid and Hilda were married and had lived in Bethnal Green, in the heart of the East End.
Twenty-two years later and the family of six had come a long way – further than Sid had once imagined.
As a young man of twenty in 1919, Sid had been a struggling apprentice tailor trying to continue a family business after the brutalizing years of the First World War.
With his father presumed dead on the Western Front sometime in late 1917, Sid had conspicuously avoided service, or serious scrutiny over the issue, until after this family tragedy.
It would seem that some kind of official benevolence had decreed that a father as young as his had been should be the only representative of a family overwrought with the grim inevitability that was service on the front lines.
This had remained a mystery for years and was still something not freely discussed by certain sections of the extended family.
Spared his chance at glory until late in the war, Sid had joined the ranks of the Non-Combatant Corps by decision of the recruitment tribunal that was appointed to hear cases of conscientious objection.
This was not one such case, however, as it was ruled that exemptions were enforced on non-conscientious grounds where it was a case of hardship for key workers in family businesses.
With their father serving until presumed dead and mother a victim of consumption at the outbreak of hostilities, Sid’s remaining family of two sisters and a brother, all younger than him, had been his saving grace.
His conscience had remained true, his thoughts often turning to his father’s unavoidable fate of a generation, and he stayed with the family whose future depended on him.
And so the small family business of tailoring tradition continued and thrived, thanks to circumstantial intervention - or the precise execution of stitching an embroidered entity into place. Some would have said without a choice, but a truer, secure sense of identity had been forged, nevertheless.
And never had such galvanized steel been better forged and submerged to a cause.
From the road you would not be have been able to tell that the 2-foot-tall sloping mound in the middle of the moderately spaced frontage was anything more than a hump-backed irregularity in the local terrain.
Either that or the residents at No. 14 had a strange predilection for putting goldfish up on a pedestal.
Other than little Mary, Hilda’s pride and joy was the creation she had cultivated atop the shelter.
The shelter was just big enough to accommodate six people at a pinch, being 6 ft. high, 5 ft. wide and 8 ft. long.
The ability to provide protection from anything other than a direct hit was based partially on the principle that the shelter was buried 4 ft. deep in the ground and then covered with soil above the reinforced roof.
The shored earth banks could then be planted with vegetables and flowers.
In this case the self-appointed matriarchal designer had opted to relocate the existing pond and turned it into the fixture’s crowning glory.
Thanks to his own representation on the borough council, Sid could have ‘fixed’ it so the family did not incur the cost of the shelter; but the £7 fee seemed a trifle to a household that earned a tad under £300 a year.
In the scheme of things, Sid did not want to be labelled an opportunist (he was a part of the local ARP network, after all); and paying it would avoid the wrath of neighbours who would be guaranteed to hear all about such shameless goings on.
More importantly, he was a patriot and considered it his Christian duty to contribute to the war effort – since he was just on the outer, as it were, of desirable service age and had been rendered ‘unfit’ for national service ever since a nasty run in with a rusty old Jonesmodel sewing machine (his left hand and trigger finger never quite the same again).
Before all soap brands were abolished by British government decree, in favour of a generic bubble-cake approach that reassured bystanders of a shared fragrance (in covering any tell-tale whiff of panic), folks were unified under the same ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ banner, whose beam shot straight back into the face of grimy adversity.
Cold water ablutions were the hallmark of hardy men, with the hot water reserved for the ladies and babies of the house, while the inherited skill at darning and patching made repairing clothing a cinch for the Hagers.
In addition to keeping up appearances by presenting the family as well turned-out and scrubbed up as prevailing conditions would allow, the focal point of the garden-billed sanctuary made the perfect excuse for ‘best planted’ competitions among the close-knit community.
And it wasn’t just floral tributes and vegetable matter that made a statement. The shelter over the road at No. 15 had a blackboard affixed to the rear of the mound facing out towards the thoroughfare.
Weather permitting, the chalked inscription would announce a novel motto or esprit de corps piece of advice in the tone of a jocular advertisement, such as the current rendering: Don’t trust Jerry-built. Brits make it better!or Jerry-cum-mumble, Johnny-cum-lately, Brits do it better to trounce and humble stately.
The Hagers had managed one better.
Using left over bricks from the rebuilt outhouse, they had assembled a toothy Smile; each alternating red brick painted in black from paint used for blackout purposes and erected to abut the rear of the mound facing the road (as with the majority of shelters, at least along Westbourne Road, the shelter was positioned so its entrance faced the nearest door to the main house, making for a swift and direct passage to safety).
Cemented in place and bordered by sand bags below and to each side, the ‘grin’, as it became known locally, had added beneath it the final touch of a measuring tape secured by two screws and stretched between either side of the fancy brickwork.
This might have seemed a wry contravention of the established myth and touted national policy to maintain a stiff upper lip, but the Hagers, or rather Sid as patriarch and keeper of the piebald stile, believed that the first line of defence was a smile, however forced or furnished by necessity.
A blithe, wide smile of gritted teeth, to bear any estimation of ardour.
Just as the Anderson shelter’s main and abiding principle was to absorb a great deal of energy from blast and ground shock (the curved top plates incidentally having lent a faux aspirational quality to the whole), the people themselves had developed different ways of dealing with shock.
Except for the shelter’s ribald smile, this seemed to be Hilda’s domain.
Comfort varied considerably depending on how cramped numbers made it or the extent to which the family agreed to make it a home-away-from-home.
Even with little luxuries kept stocked in readiness, such as extra blankets, potpourri, hoarded jars of homemade pickle and preserve, corked pitchers of cordial, biscuits and canned ‘bully beef’ (foodstuffs being stored under the bunks), the overwhelming sense of dread, of being buried alive, was never far away.
Ventilation was an issue, regardless of soap quality and nominated bath day, and the candles often proved tricky to keep lit in the competition for fresh air. Insisted upon by Hilda and carried out by Sid, a crystal radio was set up so spirits could be raised by bursts of the musical standards of the day, instead of the ACK-ACK guns taking aim at the bombers, or so the occupants could be kept informed of any news.
If reception proved unreliable on this device under the steel and earth, a lead was rigged up from the wireless inside the house (so long as it remained standing) and fed out and down to the small makeshift amplifier in the shelter. All the while stature remained an especial consideration for Hilda.
With the two older children doing their bit away from home, Sid, Hilda, Stan and Mary could have expected a little more room to move for themselves.
The stayed and stolid Victorian terrace seemed roomy enough, especially as Stan no longer had to share his room with Nigel (who himself thought that it was hewho was being generous and good enough to share the space with his younger brother).
Unlike the old gaffe back in Bethnal Green, or before that, before they were a family, and Sid had called Whitechapel home, Westbourne Rd. provided more space both inside and out. The fact that they had a small yard beyond the frontage, between the house and road, symbolised a measure of progress and offered an unspoken buffer zone to quaint notions of socialised obligation to accept one’s lot. Success was incremental.
The high ceilings inside created the impression of concerns or dreams elevated above mere every day dining table conversation; with this in itself being the one pressing and abiding preoccupation, if not distraught distraction, of the interminable days and nights of wartime existence.
At the outbreak of the war Sid had joked that “you could park a Zeppelin inside”, the ceilings had seemed so airy.
Stan had delighted at the idea, but had to content himself with a Union Jack decorated box-kite he had received for Christmas (only to lose it in the Square’s tangle of bare branches on Boxing Day, so impatient had he been to wait for a trip to broader pastures like a real park or even the country-side).
The shelter was a different story.
At 5 ft. 5in, Sid had nothing to worry about and was able to step down the four
steps and through the shelter door without so much as a ‘by your leave’.
Stan had barely to bow his long adolescent neck to gain entry past the rough and splintered sentry of the wooden door frame.
It was mother for whom the too narrow and insufficiently lofty doorway was proving an insufferable obstacle.
Little Mary was invariably safe in Hilda’s hefty arms, cradled close to her ample bosom.
The supposed swift and direct passage to safety had proven problematic from the outset.
Hilda was a big woman, standing head and shoulders above Sid.
Being broad in the beam added to her imposing presence and reputation. Despite her penchant for the voluminous dresses (that seemed to combine an apron and sail - for this was how she appeared to move), designed by her and inflicted upon Sid to make in his spare time, she wore the pants in the family.
However, when ‘Wailing Winnie’, as the air-raid sirens were affectionately
dubbed, sounded the alarm, her position was oddly reversed.
For it was then that she came to rely on the men of the house to man-handle
“I am ARP Warden, after all”, contested Sid who was in his element as organiser and overseer; in spite of his new burdensome role being delegated by his sizable wife.
As with everything of the day, routine was drilled home to become an unthinking response to a series of cues – visual and aural signals to choreograph the orderly dash to cover.
The Hagers had not resorted to the shelter until the previous autumn, but had quickly put in place the necessary practice to ensure no last minute hitches.
Hilda could not conceal her less than satisfactory appraisal of the situation.
“You might be ARP Warden and all, but you will not get me on that thing. Might I remind you I am a midwife and I am meant to attend and administer to the prone, not be prone myself.”
“You are right dear”, Sid consoled and cajoled in equal measure.
“But, you must appreciate that this is a unique set of circumstances. The shelters were not designed with stately figures such as yourself in mind.”
“Very diplomatic, Sid. You are not in council now.”
“Dad’s right mum”, Stan chimed in, as the family stood outside surveying the improbable turn of events.
The ‘thing’ to which mum referred was as odd an assemblage as never before seen in either hospital or tailor’s backroom.
At the shelter’s entrance was a combination of collapsible canvas stretcher, hessian sack and barge pole length oar.
“You’ll be over my knee on the receiving end of a wooden spoon if that oar comes anywhere near splitting my difference.”
Sid and Stan were visibly straining to conceal their mirth at mum’s expense and even Mary somehow divined the slapstick quality of the scenario, chortling and cooing to herself as she sat atop Stan’s shoulders.
It might not have seemed a very efficient method of delivery, as it were, but after much persuading and reassurance, Hilda relented and the evacuation practice had begun.
The idea was that the apparatus was left at the ready outside the front door and grabbed for use as the family left the house for the shelter. It was meant to work as a kind of slide and shovel technique, with the stretcher angled down the steps and the hessian sack placed on top. Mum just had to sit on the sack and receive Mary from Stan and she was in position. Stan was then to help Sid with the pole and together lever and push mum down into the shelter.
Once mum and baby were inside, Sid and Stan were to drop the pole and withdraw the stretcher to make good their own descent and secure the door.
They had run through this drill repeatedly until, with an exacting determination seldom witnessed off the field of actual battle, the house could be successfully evacuated in less than two minutes.
Mary thought it all a great lark, which made an otherwise bleak task easier, and would often ask Stan to take her for a ride into the ‘safe place’, as they referred to the shelter for her benefit.
“Safe place, safe place, safe place”, she would chant, to be placated by Stan who would pick her up and dance outside to whizz around with her in his arms, until she squealed with such frightened delight that she forgot about escaping any unimaginable danger.
The next obstacle was how to get mum out.
This was not as easy as it first appeared. The initial reluctance on her part to slide into the shelter on the sack and stretcher, with a pole prodding her through like a baker’s spatula, was nothing compared to the utter refusal to listen any further to Sid’s idea about using a harness to “extract her”, as he delicately put it.
It was actually an old draught horse’s harness Sid had come by, thanks sadly to a tinker who had to send his nag to the knackery. Sid had somehow got it for a more than fair price.
Hilda was horrified at the prospect of being “saddled”, and would not even allow Sid to try it on her for a fitting.
“It’s not even the whole bleedin’ harness Hilda”, he announced by way of attempting to appease her insurmountable pride.
“I will not put my head through that, it’s like a noose.”
“We won’t be pulling you out by the neck, though mum”, Stan had offered.
“I draw the line, Sid, I draw the line.”
More than words, it was a combination of the look and stance that made Sid wither like a neglected geraniumdown the side path.
Arms akimbo and legs spread and firmly planted ready for any challenge, Hilda furrowed her considerable brow and stared over the top of her steamed up spectacles.
“Well, there is another idea.” Stan was quick to take responsibility for this one.
“We could do away with the shoulder straps and all, and keep just the mid-section, the belt.”
“Go on son”, Sid encouraged, to deflect any further scrutiny from his stern wife.
“Mum just need wear the belt and we can attach the rope left over from the Crenshaw’s tug-o-war last week. I picked up what was left in the Square when no one was looking and put it in Mocka’s cart.”
Mocka was the local rag ‘n bone man who had taken a shine to Stan over the years.
“It’ll be just like hauling up the mainsail, when our boat comes in. Isn’t that right luv?”
Sid had moved to stand beside his wife and put an arm round her broad shoulder.
“You do float, you know.”
Hilda took a breath and sighed volubly.
“Any jokes about dirigibles and you stay out here permanently Sidney Hager.”
Sid and Stan exchanged quick looks of concern that such a gag was now out in the open. They needed somethingto cling to, after all.
“I think it’s time for a cup o’ char”, Sid pronounced and led the way back inside.
In winter the shelter had not been the kind of place you wanted to remain longer than the real threat demanded.
It was a problem of the bone numbing damp and inadequate drainage.
After heavy rain the family was forced to endure several inches of water about their feet and galoshes were the order of the day.
The drainage pump dad had installed wasn’t up to the task.
The extra bedding never seemed dry and everyone had a constant sniffle.
The pattern of the night alerts meant that hours were whiled away trying to stay warm and chipper, waiting for raids that frequently never came.
Those that did materialise reduced the agony by getting the actual terror out of the way and allowed folks to go back to their beds once the all clear was given.
Not that sleep came easily once the bombing stopped.
Awoken by nightmares of skies red with falling fire and the sound of thunder reverberating through his skull, Stan would shake to and lie staring and listening to the darkness, his heart keeping time with this thoughts – or was it the other way around?
Mary slept soundly next to her mother in a makeshift cot and only cried when delayed teething interrupted her memory of being afraid of something else.
Hilda slept like a battle hardened queen possessed of fatigue, disguised as sage indifference.
One eye open.
For former slum dwellers still making good by dint of hard work and sacrifice, Westbourne Rd. provided a comparative quality of life in the face of death once only dreamt of, but which occasionally inflicted Sid with pangs of self-fulfilling guilt; unworthiness, qualms of perfection that caused an unease more intense than any insomnia, and which had begun to rub off on the others a little more each day.
Yet another quality of life that had not yet fully changed them, only confirming them in their beliefs and vague attribution of escape.
The all too distant summer itself seemed like a fanciful notion, and promised to appease citizens labouring under the misconception that clear, bright horizons could only have existed in the past.
Silverwater Correctional Centre is part of the NSW network of state correctional facilities.
It is a minimum security institution for males and is situated 21 kilometres to the west of Sydney.
Opened in 1970, the facility is still relatively new – being only nine years old in the scheme of the modern penal system when compared to Long Bay Jail, which has been in existence since the First World War.
It would be unrecognisable to Jeremy Bentham who devised the design for the model panopticon prison in the late eighteenth century.
Reforming criminals has come a long way since Australia was colonised as a terra nullius holding pen for what was then considered exported convict labour.
Now an integral part of the Crown in right of the Commonwealth of Australia, punishment and rehabilitation go sympathetically hand in glove.
A new approach, a fresh chance, time over…
This is the land John Macarthur favoured for his Merino sheep and what better sanctuary for our society’s new breed of offenders, so willing to be put right?
(An extract from a promotional pamphlet published by the Department of Corrective Services NSW.)
You wouldn’t think it was a prison when you first turn up.
More like a farm.
There’s an Edwardian house at the main gate and this certainly belies what lies beyond.
You’re right by the Parramatta River, here; although there’s nothing really silver about the water that almost bubbles when the mercury soars above 100 ゜F in the shade during the summer months. Not really my kind of weather.
The country out this way apparently used to be all pastures. Not that long ago, when you consider the brief history of this nation.
It’s not as green as the $2 note would have you believe by way of homage to the early settlers.
They tell me that the old Parramatta Jail was doing a brisk trade as early as 1842.
Not really sure why I’m here and not there.
Something to do with the security grades of the inmates, I suppose.
Not sure what the dress code is like for them either.
It’s the height of summer here and just about every inmate is wearing the favoured national brands of Stubbiesshorts, ChestyBondsT-shirts (or singlets for those who want to show off their tattoos) and the flimsy footwear they call thongs.
Seems just about right in this infernal heat.
The Ashes series still looks like a proper competition. I hope it’s not too hot for Brearley’s boys, come the 6that the S.C.G.
I like the look of young Botham. A versatile No. 6 with bat and ball, it would
A promising numerical omen in that, I hope.
The Aussies look depleted thanks to this new and improved limited overs cricket business, complete with colourful uniforms and play under lights at night.
More’s our luck.
I can reassure you I have not been marked by any of the inked on blue-green, suntanned stamp of a prisoner’s billet, just yet. Although, I have acquired a permanent stain to my fingers due to the work I have been doing to keep busy and afford to pay for the little luxuries like cigarettes, etc. More about that later.
I could explain more about why I am here, but that’ll have to wait until the next letter.
Trust all is well with you. Thank you for taking the time to write.
Looking forward to some more news.
I hope this is a very Happy New Year for you.
All my love, Stan.
It had become customary that every Sunday night after dinner a select group of inmates from D-Division would gather in the common room to watch TV.
Those who were interested in remembering or pretending to remember.
Those who wanted a break from the tedious predictability of existence on the inside; out of their cell whenever the opportunity presented itself.
This Fabulous Centuryprovided an hour’s reprieve.
This particular week’s episode was looking back at World War II and the Battle of Britain.
As the strains of the program’s theme, ‘As time Goes By’, spilled forth from the new colour Rank Arena set, Stan was transported back through blank episodes of his own past, flashes and snatches of a life still being played out, out of reach of clear recall, but visible to anyone who looked at him then and there.
Once lulled by the tune, his personal voyage would continue disembodied, like the reasonable and reassuring voice of the show’s narrator, Peter Luck.
As luck would have it, the rest of the usual contingent was about as absorbed as Stan and they seldom disturbed his reverie.
A volley of questions and ‘please explains’ were fired Stan’s way as the show unfolded.
This was a permissible interruption normally reserved for the English classes conducted by Stan since the Scottish CAE teacher was sacked after only a couple of months for being under the influence.
(They were having trouble understanding him anyway.)
Stan’s diction was measured and mellifluous, as clear an accent one could expect from a pom who was well travelled and had lived in Australia for the past decade or so.
A blend had occurred.
“Did you see the planes, Mr. Stanji?” enquired Davinder who sat forward in his chair looking for clues.
“You were there, after all.”
“Shush!” came the response from the back row of chairs arranged around the TV set.
Davinder turned on his silencer and fixed him with his big brown eyes.
“This is not the library and I will not be told to be quiet when simply seeking knowledge.”
His target was the Pole, Miroslaw.
“No, this is not the library, like you say. We’re trying to watch the TV. So, please keep the questions for later, if you do not mind.”
Stan raised a conciliatory hand.
“Miro is right, Davinder. I’m sorry, but we’ll have to wait until later. Why don’t you ask me in class?”
“Yes. Forgive my interruption Mr. Stanji.”
Stan turned to Miro and nodded.
Miro raised his chin in acknowledgement.
The show continued question free.
Then it was time to return to cells before lights out, which always came too soon.
Back in his cell, Stan lay in bed and closed his eyes, humming the tune to ‘As Time Goes By.’
The words played on the inside of his eyelids like some jumpy cinematic projector, neither in Black & White nor Technicolor – just an expression of thought linked and looped in cursive script, caught in the neutral shadows cast by the mind’s internal reading lamp:
You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.
And when two lovers woo
They still say, "I love you."
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.
Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date.
Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate.
Woman needs man
And man must have his mate
That no one can deny.
It's still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.
Oh yes, the world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.
The ESL class was as an eclectic a mix of ethnic origins as you might expect to find in a country whose modern history was made up by peoples from around the world.
Diversity was a new word entering the national lexicon.
With Silverwater acting as a remand centre as well as a facility for serving a convicted prison term, the turnover of inmates was colourful, to say the least.
It was a combination of looking for a distraction and making the most of the chance to improve their English that led the eleven class members to enrol.
There was Lebanese Joe, Pacific Islander Theo, Aboriginal Gary, Nigerian Nathaniel, South American Fernando, Chinese Xiaobo, Indian Davinder, Turkish Atilla, Polish Miroslaw, Croat Goran, and, the most recent addition to the group, Vietnamese Dan.
At their head was Stan, provisional English as a Second Language teacher appointed
indefinitely in the aftermath of the state appointed Scot’s departure.
Funnily enough, it was Stan’s relationship with the prison’s Warden, a Scotsman who had actually worked at Scotland Yard in the years after Stan had served on the force, that had helped Stan secure his position as default teacher in addition to that of prison librarian.
All reffos in their own way.
Each with a story to tell.
Thanks in part to the Fraser Government’s initiatives to resettle Vietnamese ‘boat people’, federal funding had been made available for English language lessons through community based agencies – even extending to the prison system as a means of rehabilitation for offenders of ‘foreign extraction.’
These were chaotic years in Australia.
Years that had seen great social change, political upheaval that removed any last vestiges of a young country’s innocence.
Thanks to the Whitlam Government, ousted in the constitutional crisis of 1975, the last planks of the White Australia Policy for immigration built up over seventy years were effectively dismantled by 1973.
The first ‘boat people’ had arrived in 1976.
The TV News coverage of the day was fresh from its rebirth by fire after the heady years of the Indochinese conflict during the 1960’s, when Australia went all the way with L.B.J.
The nightly news now featured stories about the boats turning up on beaches in the middle of the night.
Boats crammed to bursting with men, women and children who had fled their country seeking asylum from the new regime’s brutal reprisals.
All for acting as suspected accomplices in the Yank’s war against Communism.
And who would have thought they could lose?
One amazing survival story of the time is that of the boat called Tu Do that reached Darwin in 1976.
A small wooden fishing boat whose name means ‘Freedom.’
It was built on the island of Phu Quac to avoid suspicion, away from prying eyes.
Its escape gave renewed hope to the 39 passengers who travelled more than 6,000 nautical miles using a map from a school atlas and a simple old compass.
And this after even returning for a child left behind.
These were the desperate lengths to which people with nothing left to lose except their lives would go to reach salvation.
By the end of 1979, over 2,000 boat people had made the perilous voyage.
By June of this same year, significant numbers were arriving largely as a result of the
Communist government’s policy of expelling ‘ethnic’ Chinese.
Australia’s official policy was not to detain any in camps and none were issued with anything like a temporary protection visa.
The debate was now about alternative repatriation versus an amnesty and resettlement for the new arrivals.
A ministerial threat of deportation was meant to pacify and sound tough in the face of any growing scepticism.
And still they came.
Dan had arrived in the first wave of sanctioned arrivals, in contrast to the discouraged boat people.
Australian immigration officials were accepting most refugees remaining in camps in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia; those with relatives in Australia or with useful skills and who could speak English were selected, as well as students and diplomats.
Dan’s story was not so unusual.
So far he had really only opened up to Stan.
He really wasn’t sure how he came to end up in Sydney, let alone a jail in his new-found home.
He wasn’t alone on this score.
The processing seemed vague, as did he about certain circumstances.
The resettlement had probably been expedited in the confusion of such a monumental human experiment.
Dan was twenty and his family had been of means, or at least had connections to get them out, via the normal immigration process four years earlier.
Unfortunately, this chance could not prevent him from mixing with the ‘wrong crowd’ once he landed.
He had become involved with a local western suburb’s Asian gang whose claimed turf in a pool hall conflicted with that of an Aussie gang.
The results were brawling, acts of violence and vandalism, stealing and peddling stolen goods.
Some of the young men were getting involved with drugs.
Dan was sentenced to six months after being arrested for involvement in these activities.
Police and immigration gave him the choice of deportation or serving time in minimum security, with a view to rehabilitation, a second chance and re-entering the community.
He wisely opted for the latter.
His English was not bad, as he had learnt from Americans the family knew in Saigon while he was growing up.
Still, sometimes when it suited him, he pretended not to speak so well.
Gary was the self-appointed agent provocateur of the language group.
He could not resist having a dig at someone, especially the new kid on the block.
While on washing up detail he found himself with Lebo Joe and Dan.
“I bet Dan’s hung long, Joe.”
Dan ignored the comment and continued to scrape the leftovers into the bins.
All he could think was this was such a waste of perfectly good food.
Joe was no older than his late twenties and still referred to his mates in equal terms of youthful exuberance.
“Leave the kid alone Gary. He does his job and shows he is no better than us.”
“It seems all new fellas these days is looked after better than my mob.”
“What do you do here, anyways? You are Aussie who speaks English.”
“Tell that to my government, brother.”
The guard overseeing work detail stepped over to have a word.
“Righto, keep the chatter to a minimum. You wanna finish in time to watch your TV show, don’t ya?”
“Yes, boss”, Gary chimed in on cue.
“Righto, back to work, then.”
The guard walked back over to his post and Gary caught Dan looking at him suspiciously, almost on edge.
Dan had been told about the ‘Abos’, but had never really had any contact.
A wink and a blustered smile from Gary was all it took to put him at cautionary ease.
In 1973 under Whitlam, all migrants became eligible to obtain citizenship after three years of permanent residence.
Six years later and Stan found himself a legal citizen and in legal custody.
Teaching English and lending books from the prison’s previously neglected library stock.
The day’s class had just begun.
The library now doubled as a makeshift classroom.
It was a tight squeeze, but better than nothing.
The Scot had insisted on using the canteen when outside meal times.
The cavernlike acoustics and echo, not to mention the scrape and squeak of chairs and official issue Dunlop Volleys on linoleum, made it even more difficult to hear the man.
The library was carpeted and felt strangely safe, however, unfamiliar.
It was a place where stories could be told.
Everyone in the class had a story to tell.
However, things invariably came back round to Stan and his adventures.
Or, that’s how his pupils thought of his experiences.
Not a raconteur by disposition, Stan could nevertheless talk enough to hold his own and often verged on the garrulous if given a chance.
He also had charm.
Maybe too much for his own good.
And a way with words that allowed him to paint anew his own vivid recollections, as if reinventing them.
Stitching together time and space.
The last episode of This Fabulous Century had sparked interest in the war years and the class had more questions.
Stan encouraged them to ask him about anything, trusting that conversation would prove as effective as straightforward instruction.
Not that he didn’t correct them when it warranted, but with tact and an easy to understand explanation without making them feel like dunderheads - ‘done dirt cheap.’
“And the fires, Mr. Stanji, what were they like?”
It was Davinder again; the most curious of the class.
Stan paused before answering.
“It can be rather hypnotic.”
“Excuse please, but what does this word mean?”
It was Davinder, yet again.
“Like what the snake charmer does to the Cobra to make him sleepy and dance to the music he plays on his pipe.”
“Please be writing it on the blackboard Mr. Stanji.”
As always, Stan obliged these requests.
He was usually one step ahead of his pupils anyway and would know just what vocabulary they might find hard.
Dictionaries were free to hand, but the class liked Stan to explain.
They also liked to see his examples of chalked up cursive writing which he would place next to the printed text on the board.
“Go on Sir”, requested Xiaobo from China.
“When there is that much destruction right in front of you, it is hard not to look at it.
It is everywhere you look.”
Miro couldn’t help himself: “Those bloody (a good new Aussie expression he had been using) Nazis. What did we ever do to them to make them want to kill so many? My family had great loss too, Stan. Just like you English.”
“I know Miro, I know. Our nations fought bravely together for the same cause. It was very noble courage.”
Before anyone could ask, Stan was in front of the blackboard with a meaning.
Very high or excellent character – a person can be noble; what a person does can be noble.
“Sometimes what a person does speaks more about their very high character than what they say.”
“You were saying about the fire, Mr. Stanji.”
“Yes, the fire. It could melt metal it was so hot. There were fire storms with great burning winds because of special bombs dropped and because the buildings were so close together. This was in the middle of the city.”
“Go on, Sir, please go on.”
Xiaobo was eager to learn about how other people suffered.
“Have you ever seen a river burn?”
There was silence.
“Well, they can. One night the Germans dropped bombs on factories where sugar and alcohol was made. It was gin, I think…”
“Your majesty’s mother likes to drink the gin, yes?”
It was the Croat, Goran.
“Yes, very true, Goran. She does. But, we would say Her Majesty, not mine. And it’s the Queen’s mother.”
Goran smiled broadly, he was so pleased with his knowledge of other countries and their figures of state. The correction made hardly any impact, he was so chuffed with his input.
“It was the River Lea at a place called Three Mills, where we made lots of things for our country to use and to trade or sell to other countries. Although at the time we needed most of it for ourselves or the men and women fighting. This was a different fire because of the colour. All the alcohol leaked out into the river and caused the fire to burn blue.”
A momentary silence ensued.
And then: “I have seen drinks like this.”
It was Fernando, the quiet one.
Stan was intrigued.
“Yes, very really. True. It is a car. A flaming Lamborghini.”
There was much laughter at this.
“Well, I never…”
“As if you’d ever drive one, ABBA man.”
Gary was on the prowl again and ready with an easy quip.
“My name, my song.”
Gary was edging out of his chair, or pretending to.
“THAT IS ENOUGH.”
Stan rarely raised his voice, but when he did it was effective in these situations.
Authority figures and volume meant something, even if born of negative reinforcement.
“OK, that’s enough name calling. We are men, not children. I like the sound of your drink Fernando. I look forward to trying it one day.”
Mention of the future and release was enough to subdue the students.
And the overall mood.
Classes were meant to run for 60 minutes, but sometime went under the allotted time and often over.
The Warden turned a blind eye to this and reinforced this with his guards.
So concluded the day’s lesson.
That night in his cell, Stan was more than usually reflective.
It wasn’t just the walls closing in on him.
The cell was about 60 square feet or 6 X 10 feet in size.
Almost roomy for one man.
This was not common – some inmates shared in cells with bunks.
Stan had a single bunk, a small cupboard for minimum possessions, a school desk with chair and a toilet with basin. Showers were communal.
The door was not barred, as such, except for the square viewing hatch which could be slid aside for security reasons.
There was no window, which was a kind of blessing.
The torment of only having a single rectangle of sky to look at when confined would have been too much.
The exercise yard wasn’t much better – it was the enclosed former day room and only had a sky light. Prisoners were allowed ‘outside’ three times a week to use the sports oval that was really an old paddock.
Even though he could ask to be reassigned to garden duty instead of the library to get more fresh air, Stan opted to stay with the safety of books.
He didn’t have much of a green thumb and it involved much more manual labour.
When Stan had been confined to bed with Rheumatic Fever as a ten-year-old, just before the war, he only had his bedroom window to divert his dreams and stimulate his imagination.
Apart from the books he relied on – his Boys Own Paper, Biggles and Kipling -
he would listen to children playing cricket in the street and imagine his own dashing innings.
From where he lay propped up on his mound of pillows, he was just able to make out the Square further down Westbourne Rd.
Some days he would see a blind man (Sid had said as much) being led about the Square by another man on the end of a leather strap.
From where he was they looked equal and both might have been blind, as they seemed to hesitate and walk abreast, leading each other, becoming one.
That’s how Stan felt – on the verge of being reunited; that hehad virtually led himself round in circles…