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.
It comes up to you and leans close
glowering, it stands over you
it is dressed in armour
steel bars forged in old furnaces
paint shining with a malevolent glitter
beyond it the nameless rumpus
footfalls, dim whistles, a banging—
while it stares impassive, not rude
merely doing its duty
that famous excuse—
its handle juts out, in its
thick way it gives you the fingers.
The door holds the weight of the world,
cringe before it: they do. It steals
days and years of their lives.
We meet in a small interview room. When Pauline arrives she is carrying an electric jug, milk, a mug for each of us, coffee and her own smokes. One day she comes empty-handed. It's a new guard, doesn't believe her story, confiscated her things—'Arsehole,' snorts Pauline, 'having a bad day, and takes it out on me—'
Sometimes we gossip. Like the time we'd both seen the film on TV showing murder victims dressing up to go and watch an execution. We agree we wouldn't want to live in America. 'It's just revenge,' she says. 'Can't see the point. You have to forgive—everyone does. I mean, am I going to go on for ever blaming my mother? or Bill, bastard as he was? I have to be responsible for myself, for what I've done.'
Other occasions come and go. At home I write to the woman I now know, the silent archetype who endures Pauline's sufferings.page 48
Most of us get there, some stumble into it
a few are afraid; those with friends say
they glory in it, the language is ready:
'in your prime'
'the best years'
'life begins . . .'
No one will say to you 'This time next year'
or 'Where were you for the last—?'
They know. Ten years; they call it Life
and you're only half way through. Last year
you were a youngster—thirty-eight, nothing.
Next year Miss Black you'll be thinner,
that small frown will be deeper
you'll cry less often
already you're good at advice for the new lags
your children will grow more strange
you won't sleep any better . . .
Oh my dear friend, think of another story,
find cracks in the pressed steel of the bars,
locks, regulations—go on, do; make yourself up,
give it a go,
take your dream for a walk.
I've discovered that the differences between us don't magically disappear just because we're friends. There is something else though that binds us together; perhaps it's common cause. We do agree on almost everything—but then we mostly talk about 'the system', meaning the law; and it's true that it has ignored the real lives of women like Pauline for hundreds of years, and is very hard to change.
Sometimes I go away, and we miss our weekly talks. But I think of her, she's part of me now. Even sitting in a garden in the early morning, she's there.
Letter to Miss Black
This is the morning shift of the universe
a brief autumn sun bustles around the house
and into my corner—there are bees too
nosing into the slim trumpets of the purple sage bush
brushing my elbow
children shout faintly in the distance
somewhere a hammer pecks at its wood
a dog barks; ants secretly creep round my feet.
There'll be a woman in tears in one of the plain
painted units down the road, or
the careful bungalows; perhaps a rough bloke
having a go at her; a child squealing;
in the city a dark suit by a handsome window
will be promoting a deal;
a boy breaks his heart alone in a shed at the back
of a farm. And you Miss Black—
are you on kitchen or laundry or floors
or maybe the garden . . . did you answer him back,
the fat guard who winds you up with his lazy
smile? Did you write the thousandth
letter in your tossing dream last night
and wake to the same denial?
The morning rolls its warm body over
towards the day. Look Miss Black, we're all
history, we're the Twentieth Century,
you and I are in the programme;
trouble is, we never seem to find out
who it was wrote the script.