Authors: Alan Duff
‘I’M THIRTEEN AND I’M IN A CELL.
A cell. It’s got real bars, up there protecting that high window. I can jump up and touch them. I’m in a cell.
That door is for real; it’s made of solid steel, and it’s got a peephole. So they can spy on me. But I ain’t gonna bust. I damn well ain’t.’
Charlie Wilson, the ‘state house boy’ from Two Lakes, is sent to Riverton Boys’ Home as a state ward ‘until such time as you are seen fit to return to society’.
The door in the cellblock isn’t the only thing that Charlie finds is for real — there’s also the name ‘George’ scrawled on the walls and by it the word ‘kehua’ or ghost …
‘… Duff, far from being a raw, untutored genius, is a highly sophisticated and self-conscious writer … He is one of the most interesting writers around.’
Elizabeth Caffin in
To the rare few who understood
when I was a state ward.
And to my father, as always.
Sun was going down when they arrived. Charlie thought with a last flicker of hope that this wasn’t actually the place. Stones off gravel driveway pinging underneath; a quick, anxious glance at the welfare officer, Mr Delaney, telling Charlie this was it all right. So taking his eyes to the spread of buildings they were approaching, looking for bars, steel grilles, uniformed guards. But there wasn’t even a fence. And there were flowers planted alongside the driveway, and bathed in that funny light of the last sun. As if the flowers were in full spread to drink in the sunlight till there was no more.
Single storey, and still no sign of security. Good, Charlie growing hopeful again. Tonight, I’m gone. Gonna run away. Ain’t keeping me in this place. The car stopped. Charlie turned, gave a look to Mr Delaney, as if suddenly the welfare officer was the only friend a boy had.
“Mr Delaney …?”
Words wouldn’t come. Choked up on him.
“Don’t worry, Charlie. It’s not the hell you think it is right now. And it’s only for a relatively short while.”
“Oh, yeah? How long’s short?”
“Not for me to say, lad. It’s really up to you.”
“Oh, yeah?” Charlie again. “As if I’ve got a choice.”
“You do have a choice. The choice of either behaving yourself or not.”
“Ya call that a choice? Other kids who live at home don’t get that put on them. They don’t get told by some welfare officer if they don’t behave then they get sent here, to a place like this.”
“But then other kids don’t break the law like you did, Charlie.”
“Oh, that again is it?” Though Charlie had no answer to it.
Mr Delaney offered his handshake to Charlie before they got out of the car. But Charlie couldn’t take the hand. Seemed as if the only friend Charlie had in the world just a moment ago was now the opposite. So he turned his face, waited for Delaney to get out and come unlock his door; some fancy security set-up they must have had specially installed in child welfare cars.
His heart began pounding as soon as Mr Delaney opened his side. Though Charlie tried hard to affect a tough exterior. And his mind started off in a process of instant adaptation, of wondering how tough the other kids here’d be; how vicious they’d be in a fight. And what about the guards or whatever they call them? And work? Mr Delaney did say that the boys had to work hard, that working hard was one of the things about this place. To hell with the work, Charlie all innerly clenched, I’ll escape. Casting his eyes around him as Mr Delaney ushered him ahead.
Charlie caught human movement behind tall window panes also throwing back his own reflection. But he couldn’t tell other than movement who or what it was.
Nor did sight of himself mirrored help things; his high-school uniform made him feel so young. So kid-like. Hoping like hell the resident kids here wouldn’t laugh at him. (They do and I’ll smash ’em. Don’t care how tough they are.) Though he didn’t feel at all confident that he’d win. Hell, he mightn’t even be able to raise his fists in his own defence so torn apart did he feel. And when he sucked in breath it choked on a sob that he had to bring under control before the dams burst.
As Charlie took his first step inside the place, he got a thought of his mates: Gypo, Mark. And Anna. Even if she was a girl. Hearing the three of them, from just yesterday, telling him he’d be all right, wasn’t as if they send thirteen year olds to jail or nothin’. Well, they were wrong. Charlie looking around him. It sure felt like a jail. Not that it looked like one; just had that feel about it.
“Down that passage there, Charlie,” Mr Delaney breaking into Charlie’s seething thoughts.
Down this long passageway, such highly polished lino Charlie could see his own reflection. And his mind grew images of boys, teenage boys like him, down on their hands and knees rubbing it shiny with rags. With a uniformed guard of giant proportions standing over them, kicking bums of whoever lagged. God in heaven, but what is happening to me?
Light suddenly poured in through a run of windows on Charlie’s left. He looked, it was grassed area outside. And a trampoline. Then it was gone as walls resumed. And he was eyes back down looking at his feet, his bare legs feeling self-consciously exposed for the schoolboy he was. But in this place they must be thugs and gangsters
and hardened crims, not just a wild teenage boy from a home with parents who don’t care much about him. Cos if they did, why weren’t they at the court this morning?
He lifted his head in late response to shoed feet clicking towards him. Too late to see if they belonged to an adult or a kid. But he didn’t want to turn and look in case the person was looking back at him and took his look the wrong way. (Oh, God, let me go home.)
At an office door Mr Delaney said to halt. Delaney knocked. Nameplate on the door read: Manager. It filled Charlie with dread.
Door opened. A man in ordinary clothes smiled at them.
“Jim, how are you?” He shook Mr Delaney’s hand. Then he turned to Charlie.
“And this will be Charles Wilson, yes?” with a beaming smile that had Charlie relaxing fast. He even took the handshake.
“You need a bit of practice on your handshake, young man.” The manager’s tone changed slightly to what his position implied: authority. But he said with a smile so Charlie wasn’t overly concerned, “Needs to be firm, you understand? And you must look the person in the eye.” Breaking into a chuckle before adding, “Or the other person will think you’re afraid of him.” Pausing. Narrowing his eyes for just a fraction at Charlie. “Please, come in.”
They went into the office. It had a window that looked out over the grassed area; a corner of the trampoline was just visible, as was a window, which Charlie quickly figured was the same he’d passed down the corridor. The
manager offered Mr Delaney a seat and then nodded to Charlie that he do the same. His manner had changed. More official. In the instant.
He and Mr Delaney talked about reports, the court’s recommendations, that sort of official thing. Left Charlie to cast his eyes around the room. Though hardly interesting; just another office, it could be the headmaster’s office at Rangiuru High in Two Lakes. The manager spoke with an accent. Foreign, Charlie thought. And whenever Charlie cast furtive glances at the man, he caught the sparkle in his blue eyes that was both striking and scary at the same time. Charlie couldn’t figure why the scary part because the man smiled a lot. And his teeth were perfect, and as white as the whites of his blue eyes that so attracted and frightened a boy stranger to him; his presence.
Next the men were shaking hands. Then Mr Delaney offered the same to Charlie, and Charlie took it because the manager seemed to be boring expectant eyes into him.
“Best of luck, Charlie. I’ll see you from time to time.” Patting Charlie’s shoulder. “Keep your nose clean and you’ll be home in no time. Goodbye.”
The door closed after the departed Mr Delaney. Now what? Charlie wondering as he stood from having got up to shake Mr Delaney’s hand. He stared down at the carpet, until sharply brought to attention by the manager’s commanding voice.
Startled, Charlie lifted his eyes. To be met by the full force of the blues. The scary side of the blue gaze. And his voice came out differently: slow, quiet, as if on a leash threatening to break.
“You’ll get to know that with me, boy, one thing Mr Dekka can’t stand is boys who won’t look people in the eye.”
And just as Charlie was starting to grow alarmed, the man’s eyes changed to soft, smiling blue.
“Because, young fellow, those who won’t look the world in the eye are those who won’t be anything in this world. And you do want to be someone in this world, do you not, Charles Wilson?”
Caught Charlie without an answer. He was confused anyway at this man’s ability to rapidly alter his mood, state messages by eyes alone.
The smile lit up the room again. “Oh, I am glad you thought to call me by a respectful title.” He chuckled. “Because that’s another one of my, let’s say, quirks: I hate young boys showing disrespect to their elders.” He clapped his hands together.
“Anyway, I’m sure you’ll get used to each staff member’s different ways. Now, I’ll briefly explain things around here …”
“As I said, I’m Mr Dekka. You might hear some of my colleagues call me Piet. But you must never call me that. And should you, then you can expect to be severely punished. I am not the manager as I am sure you have imagined, I am a housemaster. One of seven. The manager is on leave, but you’ll meet him on Monday. Whilst he is away, I am acting manager.” And in the brief pause Charlie could see by the way Mr Dekka puffed himself up that he was proud of that.
“You are here because the court has made you a
state ward, which means you come under our guardianship at Riverton until such time as you are seen fit to be returned to society. It’s 1967, young man.”
He paused to lift clear blue eyes to Charlie. “We wouldn’t want you leaving here in 1970 or even later. You will, eventually, go to a local high school, but not until we see how you shape up.”
Dekka paused to reach for a pipe, which he took his time in tapping out into an ashtray and then patiently packed with fresh tobacco from a tin that had foreign wording on its label. Once, twice, three times in total he lifted those blue eyes up at Charlie and each time caught him in its stare. Not hostile. Not warm either. But cold. Cold.
He lit the pipe; its pleasant aroma soon filled the room. He got up and opened a window behind him. He had narrow shoulders. His forearm veins stuck out. He stood with his back to Charlie, began talking again.
“Your welfare department reports have you as rather a headstrong young fellow, Charles.” And Charlie thinking: call me Charlie. I hate Charles. I ain’t Charles. He’s an English Prince. I’m a half-caste Maori Charlie. Call me Charlie.
“You have a violent streak, which the —”
“Sir, I wouldn’t say violent …” Watched the back stiffen, the arm, bent at the elbow, freeze on the pipe. Then he turned.
“Oh?” he said. Just that.
“Sir, I do have a temper, I must admit, but I’m not —”
But Dekka didn’t let him finish. “A temper you call it? You call assaulting a teacher just a temper?”
“He started it, sir. I tried to —”
started it?” The face began to redden. The pipe was held out at chest level before him, suspended. “How could a teacher start such an incident?”
“Well sir, it was like —”
“Teachers never start incidents with their charges. The charge starts it, you understand?”
“Yes, charge. That’s you. You are — or were — the teacher’s charge. Means he is in charge of you. The same as I am now in charge of you. And if you and I had an argument, who of us do you think would have started it?”
“Well, probably me, sir. But I wouldn’t do it here, sir —”
Charlie checking himself this time. Eager not to displease. Not till he had the place figured out. And even then he wasn’t at all sure about this guy with the foreign accent and the piercing blue eyes.
The smile broke out again. The face was relaxed once more. “No, I don’t expect you would start it, young man. Not with me you wouldn’t.”
Then his eyes went down to a brown folder, which he studied for a few minutes, leaving Charlie time to calm himself, his hammering heart, his confusion.
Finally, the head lifted. And with it came a sigh.
“Your report warns me that you may be an escape risk, Charles Wilson.” Formal again.
“You yourself have said on several occasions leading up to your court appearance that you’d escape if you were ever given over to a boys’ home custodial
period. Well …” He leaned back in his chair, took one puff at this pipe. “You’re here now. And we don’t have fences. Nor do we have guard dogs. No bars. So escaping isn’t exactly difficult. But we do have, let us say, a tried and proved system of discouraging would-be escapers. It’s called giving them a taste of the consequences.”
He stood up. Formal again, though Charlie thought he could detect a note of sympathy in the same blue orbs.
“You, Charles Wilson, will be confined to the cellblock until such time as the manager, Mr Davis, deems you fit to be amongst the other inmates here.”
Charlie’s mouth fell open.
“Sir!” The eyes blazed. Then went just as quickly warm again.
“Cellblock, Charles. For your own good as much as ours.”
And Charlie could but shake his head.
Down another mirror-shiny passageway; past wooden doors both sides. Past curious kids, boys his own age, one or two older, maybe fifteen or even sixteen. Some of the looks hostile. But mostly they seemed to be sympathetic towards Charlie, or so Charlie read the looks. It seemed to take a long time in reaching the end of the corridor; passing boys, most of them standing in their doorways. Such a long time. And yet too quickly it ended with Mr Dekka pushing up alongside him and unlocking a solid steel door.
And a boy inside calling to no one in particular, though it was certainly neither of his parents, it might be Anna, or could be Gypo: “Please, let me go home. Even
home,” as another door was opened and he stepped inside a room that could have been a prison cell. Was a prison cell when he heard the key turn and click. State ward.