I was in jail, but not for the usual reasons.
My type of sentence didn’t make the encircling, high greystone walls any less
forbidding. The clanging wallgate, heavy padlocks and rattling circles of barbed wire
were overwhelming to anyone afflicted with imagination.
I’d been seduced by Helen’s Peacedove Publications scheme. Plus the urgency of my Visa card debt. Running ‘peace’ writing workshops in the former maximum security prison, with me, a former crime- writer in-residence, was her brainwave, and mine! Turned out to be a fitting place to work and die.
Crime Writer-in –Residence
Only a submission-writer- extraordinaire like Hel (as we call her) could have convinced arts funding authorities to part with $100,000 for creating an ‘Age of Peace’ exhibition of writing and illustrations. There would be 100 contributors. Each would represent an age between 1- 100. (They’d had trouble finding the 100year old and the baby’s artwork was messy but…) All attended my workshops on site in the gaol hall next to the former gallows. Creating literature of peace would neutralise a formerly violent location and create an oasis of creativity amidst the grey. That’s what Helen, large, literate and with ripples of bulges under her see-through top and eco-sandals, wrote in the submission.
The reality was an on-location fight with ‘Jailbirds’, the ex-prisoners’ society who got funding from the same ‘worthy cause-needy’ arts politician to launch re-employment initiatives for ex-prisoners. Pre-election, he needed favourable media coverage.
‘Jailbirds’ spent their money differently, at Cynthia’s instigation. Cyn was still a practising con-artist to the petite tips of her corporate Vogue patterned nails.
She’d been the last female prisoner released prior to the prison being declared a tourist attraction with heritage listing, so an astute journalist was commissioned to ‘ghost’ the real- life- and- true- crimes of Cynthia.
Successfully rehabilitated, Cyn had set up her own electronic publishing company. Jail Bird Press was in full flight, especially with the government handout, and competing with Peacedove Publications for media attention. Rent-free, the prison site was a gift.
‘Share the site, ‘instructed the money-givers. ‘Dual launch. On the same day. Cyn and Hel.’ Am I the only one to laugh at the proximity of those names?
Helen’s Peacedove Publishing was to print limited edition, exhibition catalogues to go with the Peace literary display. Jail Bird Press were launching electronically on the Internet. ‘Symbolic. No walls,’ said Cyn whose ghosted autobiography was a work of faction as well as being the easiest government con she’d managed since her trial. White collar computer crime with Internet connections was her specialty. Her prison-funded Info. Tech. university course had kept her up to date, And, with an election approaching, the politician needed Cyn’s ‘public success’ as a model of rehabilitation.
‘Symbolic,’ muttered Helen. “Nets. Network.” Cyn’s ability to attract funds others believed should be diverted into the arts, incensed Helen. ‘Con-artist. Even her ghost writer isn’t identified.’
‘Common practice,’ I explained. ‘I use several pseudonyms myself.’
Worthy causes had a hierarchy and Helen believed the arts higher than rehabilitated criminals. And above eco-issues. Especially those who demonstrated superior skills of self publicity.
I didn’t necessarily agree, but I’d learnt to stay quiet and keep in the background recently. Large debts make well -paid work vital. And there isn’t much around for a freelance writer, regardless of record.
We were walking in the hospital grounds separated from the major prison, with a veranda and a small herb garden. Cyn had left, with her disks, modem and laptop, but I’d managed to miss being introduced.
That rosemary in the ex-prison hospital herb garden planted by forgotten inmates gave Helen the idea. Ironic really, considering that rosemary means remembrance. Could a fictitious sleuth of peace called Rosemary reveal links in stories? Maybe there was a herb with dual properties? The profusion of sweet smelling herbs didn’t quite blot out the other scents of the past.
That’s when Helen remembered and came up with the ‘dove’ angle. Amongst Helen’s extensive network was Anne who ran a celebratory business releasing doves at weddings. The doves were photographed sitting on the smiling bride.
‘Do they…you know…drop?’ I asked naively.
‘Anne says they don’t drop. Dried out beforehand.’ said Helen. ‘Remember, doves mean peace. Right?’
I nodded. Peace-work here was full of commercial conflict. Jail Bird Press would be in front on electronic reader numbers based on possible web site visits. Helen had to stress quality, creativity and innovation with her traditional pages. Hence the bird launch.
‘What if we released some white doves, to fly out over the prison walls during the launch?’ said Helen.
‘Sunday is a quiet media day. Get good coverage.’ I add.
‘More interesting than televising boring computer screens and modems,’ muttered Helen.
But then something went wrong... And the bird book war began. Jail Bird versus Peace Dove. Electronic versus pages. And I was involved in the multiplicity of events.
‘Why are you here to help us?’ would-be peace writers asked me at the meal break between workshopping. ‘Don’t you usually write about crime? Are you researching?’
‘Sentenced to creativity,’ I quipped. A condition of the residency was that I stayed ‘on-site’ for the week. That meant sleeping in a cell-bedroom in the former prison hospital.
Ironic to accommodate ‘artists’ who tend to be highly sensitive to surroundings in a former maximum-security prison setting. But cheaper for the organiser. My cell-inmate predecessor had a newspaper clipping pinned on the back of the door. ‘Owl rescued.’ A young boobook owl had been found clinging to a cross in the prison chapel. Zoo keepers using nets, took 45 minutes to catch and release the owl which they feared would starve inside.
Later that night, I noticed an owl sitting on my veranda. Delighted to find a possible non-violent topic like a wise owl in a prison, I welcomed its presence.
‘Use the prison as a resource for your writing of PEACE,’ orders Helen. ‘Concentrate on something uplifting.’
‘An owl?’ I suggested.
Was that wise, with the gallows just down the passageway?
Sleeping alone in a hospital prison cell is like being on an island. Coiled barbed wire rattles above the exercise yard. Outside, yellow spotlights ring the stark walls and create shadows around the fences, when I peered through my cell bars.
Daytimes were okay, as I was busy workshopping with some of the chosen 100. At night, I kept the passageway light on.
Noises. Creaks. Flutters. Dusk and midnight tours. $10 with tiny torches provided, operating on Wednesday and Friday nights. Through my barred ‘bedroom’ I see waving torches pinprick the night. Then Helen suggests, ‘Why don’t you take the midnight tour. Soak up some atmosphere.’
The 45 minute midnight tour left early at 7.30 p.m. Strange timing.
‘Suicide nets.’ The guide pointed to the nets across the second floor stairwell. ‘Prevents prisoners jumping.’
Then the guide mentioned the Gallows Owl. ‘The owl fed on mice. Probably lived in the cell block. Prisoners bet on which end of the landing it would fly, when a hanging was pending. If the owl flew to the north, the man would be reprieved. If it flew south, he would be condemned,’ said the guide.
‘How long do owls live?’ I asked.
‘Years,’ he said vaguely.
I didn’t mention this story to the peace-writers.
Tonight, there’s a dark shape on my veranda. The owl flies up and down. Compass directions never have been my strong point.
Keys take on special significance in a prison. I’d been given a set of keys to let myself in at the padlocked side gate, just under the watch tower. Exercise yard panels have meticulously painted murals, created by aboriginal prison artists, just before closure. Prior to that, walls were white-washed, for warders to see the shadows of figures attempting to escape.
I blink and grab my new glasses. Someone or something was moving in the shadows near the wall. A door creaked. Should I get up and go to the toilet. My bladder insisted. I glanced through the open door of the second cell bedroom. Light came through the bars.
A dark shape waited, framed against the barred cell window. Was the owl back? Why?
I took a step back. I was alone. That fear would niggle all night if I got into bed without investigating. I stepped into the spare cell.
What a relief!
The bedside lamp! The shadowy outline looked like a waiting gallows owl.
But beyond, in the yard, a thin line of figures was moving! Someone was out there. At 3 a.m. in the morning.
I didn’t want to complain. I knew how hard Hel had tried to get funding for this project, but… I screamed, then grabbed my camera and took a shot. The last figure in the line vanished through the wall gate, which was supposed to be locked!
Next morning, launch day chaos prevailed! No time to worry Helen about shadowy figures in the night. The 100 plus contributors, family and hangers-on crowded the Peacedove Publications display. The Jailbirds supporters were milling. The doves were ready for release. Then it happened!
A strategic deposit by the low flying peace bird hit Cyn’s keyboard causing an electronic malfunction. Lights went out. The power went off. A smell of burning.
Then the prison was evacuated.
The subsequent electrical fire destroyed the ‘Jail Bird Press’ launch. Some did suspect that Helen had allocated an abnormally high percentage of her budget to ‘peace-birds’ release, but she couldn’t be blamed for natural disasters or ‘acts of bird’.
Then, falling masonry hit the leading dove of peace just as it was released in the hospital herb garden. Later, they buried the bird in the rosemary herb section. For safety reasons. the Heritage Trust closed the grounds to the public which also included t.v. news crews. Helen missed out on her publicity as the exhibition was closed.
Later, I found out about the midnight visitors. Stan, an ex-warder and amateur electrician, ran an illicit 3 a.m. prison tours business.. Somehow he’d managed to keep a wallgate key when the others handed theirs in. So he had access to the prison.
“Moonlighting’ as a guide for exclusive Japanese tourist groups he conducted ‘night visits’ at $20 per head, and cleaned up thousands of dollars weekly. Cyn took a cut.
There was some suspicion that he might have fiddled with her computer connections, especially as his illicit activities were threatened by exposure in her book. .And even
though the shit hit the laptop, bird shit was unlikely to electrocute, unless it had a little earlier help.
Unexpectedly, her death gave a boost to Cyn’s ‘Jailbird’ autobiography and she took on cult status amongst cyber-crime fans. It became the most frequently downloaded title.
The ‘worthy-cause needy’ politician was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs so he abandoned support for arts or prison rehabilitation. During a cabinet reshuffle he redirected funds to overseas aid. After it was discovered that Cyn had already cleaned out the accounts by electronic transfer, the politician refused to support any further publishing ventures.
A ghost-writer was commissioned to write the as-told-to story of the Gallows Owl with merchandising and electronic rights to be retained by the Ex-Prisoners rehabilitation group. I managed to get that job too, under one of my other pseudonyms. I’ve always believed in the participant-observer approach to writing. When you’re dealing with egos named like Hel and Cyn, and need to understand their motivations, it helps to have had some experience in their worlds. Theoretical peace is different from real crime which differs from virtual reality.
I’d managed to avoid meeting Cyn face-to-face by keeping the communications on line. My c.v. didn’t mention my electronic Internet fraud conviction nor my simultaneous career as ghost writer for Cyn and peace-writer for Helen. Easy enough to change data. Originally a freelance was a medieval mercenary; just a lance for hire.
So I’m just a cyber-freelance, with Internet connections. And Helen has gone into business with her friend Anne, diversifying into launching other birds in preparation for the Gallows Owl launch.
BIO: Australian Hazel Edwards has been writer in residency in Fremantle Jail, now a children’s gallery, but this story is fiction. Was also Antarctic writer on ice in 2001. with the Australian Antarctic Division. www.hazeledwards.com has details of her internationally published work including the classic picture book ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake, a recent Australian Govt gift to the Danish Princess..’ Co-written ‘Formula for Murder’ is her only adult crime novel but she’s written YA novels such as ‘Stalker’ and Fake ID”