Bruce Morrison lives in Christchurch and counts writing and reading among his favourite ‘ings. “If it wasn’t for the support and encouragement of the Hagley Writers’ Institute, I probably wouldn’t write much at all”
Bruce Morrison 2013
I couldn’t see what I had drawn but I knew I’d happy to see it in the morning. Just thinking about my artwork kept me awake. Getting a pen to work on steel had cost me a green pass. A green pass meant a day’s work in the prison farm; a chance to stand by the boundary fence where the mesh had been prised open just enough to poke a hand through. We’d trade with the local women, eggs for baccy mostly but sometimes a chicken for cash. Mesh time we called it. The farm guards didn’t care too much what went on in mesh time as long as nothing dangerous came inside, and, of course, they got their cut. Of all the guards, ‘Bacon Bum’, all he ever said was ‘pigs arse’, was the worst. He’d stop us trading and stand at the hole in the fence with his pants down until some impoverished widow ‘paid’ him to move away. Most of all, I liked the silence and easy sweat of farm work. Liked it so much I nearly called off the deal to trade my green pass for a pen. But then I’d thought, fuck it.
I must have been awake because I heard the midnight freight whistle as she laboured up the incline through the cutting which bordered the farm. She sounded close; that meant there was no wind outside. Perhaps the stars were out too. Wide awake now, I tensed waiting to feel her vibrations. Then I felt them; short and jerky. A short train. We all did that. At breakfast someone would always say whether they thought the midnight had hauled a lot of boxcars or just a few. If an argument got going we’d call on Prof to decide and his word would settle it. Good old midnight I thought, always on time. Once, when I was in the hospital, I’d seen the matron reset the wall clock when old midnight whistled. The Silver Fox’s bullies had put me in there because I’d kicked him in the nuts at shower time. I yawned, stretched on my hard mattress and nodded in time to old midnight’s jerky beat.
I saw moon-lit telegraph poles flicking past a big open door as if counting the steps that had led to me being shackled to a boxcar’s rough, wooden floor. Felt a farewell railway boot in my arse as I was dumped onto a siding and many more as the prison guards frog-marched me along the road to my concrete cell. I’ve been known as ‘Box Car’ ever since because I came here in one instead of on a bus like the others. The storey goes that once everyone was sent here by train but that was before the railways said we were a waste of space. I don’t know why I was an exception. I don’t mind though, quite like a name that comes from the outside. They said I’d forget my real name after a while. Well, I haven’t but I don’t notice the reek of sweat and stale piss anymore nor do I pay any mind to wet sounds in dark corners. Whenever I hear old midnight’s whistle I think of those poles flicking past a big, open door.
One day, out with the gang clearing a fire break beside the track, I asked ‘Prof’ how fast he thought old midnight went. I still laugh when I think about what he did. He got me to count the paces between the telegraph poles, thought for minute, then he’d said; ‘them poles run at 40 miles an hour’. That was the day the trans-island thundered past and ‘Rabbiter’ brown-eyed all the passengers. Cost him a month’s movies but we all thought it was worth it. He got himself a new name too. On another baking day one summer, ‘Shiner’ pissed on the rails and yelled at us to watch it turning into steam. Then, as if ordered, we all had a go. Bacon Bum had his baton out pretty quick so I only had time for a quick squirt but, sure enough, soon as my stream touched the rails it hissed and disappeared. That was the end of Shiner. He’s been ‘Piss on the Rails’ ever since.
I asked Prof why the heat didn’t shoot up my piss and burn my dick like electricity would. He just looked at me and said nothing. He wasn’t always like that. After the express had passed he started telling us how the passengers were just like us because they were prisoners of the railway. I remembered thinking about that for a while and saying but they can choose where to get on and off. Prof had looked at me and said that I was here because of choices I’d made all down the line. I couldn’t answer that but I liked him anyway. He didn’t look me over at shower time like The Silver Fox used to before I kicked him.
The hum of the cell doors getting ready to open woke me up as usual. I hated these new electric sliding doors. I liked the old hinged doors with a handle so you could open them as soon as the guards had unlocked them. At least that way I could pretend I’d opened my door just because I felt like it. Fast or slow, left handed or right handed with a kick or a head butt. My god-damned choice. Each time I yanked that handle I’d imagine I was opening the door of a box car to jump out. Prof had told me that something thrown out of a train would travel at the same speed as the train for few seconds before gravity pulled it down. I loved thinking about those few seconds. Knew my time would come.
The lights came on, my door slid open but not before I saw my beautifully drawn, black handle.