Writing Wellington: Twenty Years of Victoria University Writing Fellows
A windy autumn night. We've lost our way in the distant Wellington suburb of Tawa. Here's a lit-up petrol station—we'll go there, they always know.
But will they? This isn't any ordinary address, a house in a street. Will they draw back from us, shaking their heads, not wanting to know, or to be seen to know? How do people regard a prison in their neighbourhood?
Arohata Women's Prison as it turns out is a bit off the main road, up a curving drive that climbs to the top of the hill where there are large dark buildings, and a car park. No real directions, however; we follow a group which itself gets lost in the darkness, turns, tries again . . .
Eventually we find ourselves waiting in a little enclosure, a kind of open porch, for a door to be unlocked. We form a queue, pay someone our money, wait again. In the end we are invited to take our seats in an informal semi-circle round a large open floor. It looks like a decorated gym (and it is).
It is April 1996. We have come to see Kia Marama, the Arohata Women's Prison performance. It is a collage of different kinds of presentation—song, dance, guitar music, chorus, talking. Towards the end of the evening a small fair-headed Pakeha woman comes forward from the chorus line. She takes a chair, turns it round and sits on it, leaning on the back; a silence, then slowly she begins to tell us about her 'Silent Tears'. She pauses often, and there is a long silence at the end of her words. Then she stands up and sings, without accompaniment, in a sweet, throaty voice, 'All You've Got is Your Soul'. Silence again, then she turns back to join the group, and they move into their final chorus. This is Pauline Brown.
Weeks later she still haunts me; that pale intense face and curly fair hair, the clasped hands as she leans forward. Her direct appeal—no, it was not an appeal. 'Here I am,' she said, 'a mother of three children sitting in prison . . . because I killed a man . . .' But she did not condone her crime. 'I'm not sorry he's no longer around, but I am sorry I'm the one who took his life. I will never be able to forgive myself . . .' Mostly she'd talked about her children; she tried to protect them, and now the law decreed she should be denied all access to them.
What kind of history could it be, looming up behind that brief revelation? But then, who am I to wonder, to enquire? A stranger, someone from another world . . . yet I live in the same town, share the same windy sky, the same jutting Wellington hills; our local spring storms and occasional mellow afternoons . . . Is the gap between us really uncrossable?
I sense there is something I could do to traverse it, but at first I don't know what it is; I just know the idea won't leave me alone. I consider the oppressive contrast between my life and hers, my daily freedom of choice and the unrelenting restrictions of hers. I go out, come in, pick up the phone, drive to town or into the country, visit friends and family. And Pauline, this young woman? My God, she's young enough to be my daughter . . . what has the world done to her, taught her, given her and taken away?page 47
One day, weeks after the performance, I know what I must do. I write a careful letter, post it, prepare to wait. It's not for long. 'I wanted to write it myself,' she says, 'but I couldn't: growing up—the booze, and beatings—those men I married—I'll tell you—'
Wednesday. My morning with Pauline. I drive the twenty kilometres or so along the urban motorway, turn oV and up past a mowed slope on which TAWA is planted in low bushes, then up a curved drive to the prison. Lawns edged by tidy gardens, a row of parked cars, the entrance to the Guard Room. There's quite a ritual about unlocking and signing in.