Island Life by David Slack

Orwell That Ends Well

It was in Auckland, a sodden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard. We were waiting outside the condemned cells, a row of sheds fronted with double bars, like small animal cages. Each cell measured about ten feet by ten and was quite bare within except for a plank bed and a pot of drinking water. In some of them assorted men and women were squatting at the inner bars, with their blankets draped round them. These were the condemned Herald writers, due to be hanged for treason within the next week or two.

One prisoner had been brought out of his cell. He was a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a small goatee and moustache, somewhat in the style of a diminished Russell Brown. Six tall warders were guarding him and getting him ready for the gallows. Two of them stood by with rifles and fixed bayonets, while the others handcuffed him, passed a chain through his handcuffs and fixed it to their belts, and lashed his arms tight to his sides. They crowded very close about him, with their hands always on him in a careful, caressing grip, as though all the while feeling him to make sure he was there. It was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water. But he stood quite unresisting, yielding his arms limply to the ropes, as though he hardly noticed what was happening.

Seven o'clock struck and the sound of a birdcall from a transistor radio, desolately thin in the wet air, floated from a nearby Mount Eden home. The superintendent of the jail, who was standing apart from the rest of us, moodily prodding the gravel with his stick, raised his head at the sound. He was a retired NZRFU official with graying temples, heavy jowls and a gruff voice. 'Christ, what’s the hold up, Farrar,' he said irritably. 'The man ought to have been dead by this time. Aren't you ready yet?'

Farrar, the head jailer, a stout man in his late thirties, shining pate and gimlet-eyed, waved his hand. 'Sorry, about that sir, sorry,' he bubbled. 'Just had a slight hitch hooking up the feed for my live blog. The hangman is waiting. We can begin any time you like.'

'Well, quick march, then. The prisoners can't get their breakfast till this job's over.'

We set out for the gallows. Two warders marched on either side of the prisoner, with their rifles at the slope; two others marched close against him, gripping him by arm and shoulder, as though at once pushing and supporting him. The rest of us, New Zealand Party observers and the like, followed behind. Suddenly, when we had gone three metres, the procession stopped short without any order or warning. A dreadful thing had happened – John Campbell, come goodness knows whence, had appeared in the yard. He came bounding among us with a loud volley of questions, and leapt round us wagging his finger, and raging at the insanity of putting reporters to death for criticising their country’s foreign minister. It was a wide sweeping monologue, half diatribe, half prayer. For a moment he darted about us prodding with accusations: “you can’t do this!”; “It’s not treason, it’s sedition”; “Don’t you know they abolished hanging for treason in 1989?” - and then, before anyone could stop him, he had made a dash for the prisoner, and jumping up tried to pull him free from the guards. Everyone stood aghast, too taken aback even to grab at the current affairs host.

'Who let that little creep in here?' said the superintendent angrily. 'Catch him, someone!'

A warder, detached from the escort, charged clumsily after Campbell, but he bobbed, weaved and declaimed just out of his reach, taking everything as part of the game. A young Investigate magazine reporter picked up a handful of gravel and tried to stone him away, but he dodged the stones and came after us again. His indignant outbursts echoed from the jail walls. The prisoner, in the grasp of the two warders, looked on incuriously, as though this was another formality of the hanging. It was several minutes before someone managed to catch Campbell. Then we put my handkerchief through his suit belt and moved off once more, with the Campbell Live host still objecting noisily.

It was about ten metres to the gallows. I watched the bare pale white back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the journalist who never loses the capacity to reach the bar for another. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious journalist. When I saw him step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short, even that of a reporter, when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working – head throbbing from symptoms of coffee withdrawal, stomach crying out for a Big Mac, lungs tickling from the residual effects of a two-pack-a day habit, - all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nicotine-stained nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned - reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us – Frank O'Sullivan - would be gone - one mind less, one world less.

The gallows stood in a small yard, separate from the main grounds of the prison, and overgrown with tall prickly weeds. It was a brick erection like three sides of a shed, with planking on top, and above that two beams and a crossbar with the rope dangling. The hangman, a grey-haired convict in the denim uniform of the prison, was waiting beside his machine. He greeted us with a servile crouch as we entered. At a word from Colin, the two warders, gripping the prisoner more closely than ever, half led, half pushed him to the gallows and helped him clumsily up the ladder. Then the hangman climbed up and fixed the rope round the prisoner's neck.

We stood waiting, five yards away. The warders had formed in a rough circle round the gallows. And then, when the noose was fixed, the prisoner began crying out on his god. It was a high, reiterated cry of 'Winston! Winston! Winston! Winston!', not urgent and fearful like a prayer or a cry for help, but steady, rhythmical, almost like the tolling of a bell. Campbell answered the sound with a groan. The hangman, still standing on the gallows, produced a small cotton bag like a flour bag and drew it down over the prisoner's face. But the sound, muffled by the cloth, still persisted, over and over again: 'Winston! Winston! Winston! Winston! Winston!'

The hangman climbed down and stood ready, holding the lever. Minutes seemed to pass. The steady, muffled crying from the prisoner went on and on, 'Winston! Winston! Winston!' never faltering for an instant. The superintendent, his head on his chest, was slowly poking the ground with his stick; perhaps he was counting the cries, allowing the prisoner a fixed number - fifty, perhaps, or a hundred. Everyone had changed colour. The New Zealand Party officials had gone grey like bad coffee, and one or two of the bayonets were wavering. We looked at the lashed, hooded man on the drop, and listened to his cries - each cry another second of life; the same thought was in all our minds: oh, kill him quickly, get it over, stop that abominable noise!

Suddenly the superintendent made up his mind. Throwing up his head he made a swift motion with his stick. 'Fuck this for a joke!' he shouted almost fiercely, “Let him down!”

There was a clanking noise, and then dead silence. The prisoner had fainted, and the rope was twisting on itself. I let go of Campbell, and he galloped immediately to the back of the gallows; but when he got there he stopped short, barked a command to his cameraman and then retreated into a corner of the yard, where he stood among the weeds, looking pensively out at us. We went round the gallows to inspect the prisoner. He was unconscious, but the slightest smirk of triumph lay across his face.

The superintendent reached out with his stick and poked the limp reporter. 'He's all right,' said the superintendent. He backed out from under the gallows, and blew out a deep breath. The moody look had gone out of his face quite suddenly. He glanced at his wrist-watch. 'Eight minutes past seven. Well, I tell you what, they can get some other stupid bastard to do this, I’m not up to it.’

The warders unfixed bayonets and marched away. Campbell, sobered and yet conscious of having contributed to the aversion of a tragedy, slipped after them, commenting quietly in a reflective Piece To Camera. We walked out of the gallows yard, past the condemned cells with their waiting prisoners, into the big central yard of the prison. The convicts, under the command of warders armed with batons, were already receiving their breakfast. They squatted in long rows, each one holding a small bowl, while two warders with buckets marched round ladling out sodden Weetbix; it seemed quite a homely, jolly scene, after the attempt at a hanging. An enormous relief had come upon us now that the job was abandoned. One felt an impulse to sing, to break into a run, to snigger. All at once everyone began chattering gaily.

The Investigate magazine reporter walking beside me nodded towards the way we had come, with a knowing smile: 'Do you know, that reporter guy, when he heard his appeal had been dismissed, he pissed on the floor of his cell. From fright. Like an M and M? From The Warehouse, two dollars a box. The brown ones are real nice.'

Several people laughed - at what, nobody seemed certain.

Farrar was walking by the superintendent, talking garrulously. 'Well, sir, this was an excellent performance. I got the whole thing streaming on the webcast - flick! like that. It doesn’t always work so well. I’ve had cases where the bandwidth has dried up and I’ve had to slip in a few jpegs of my Ralph magazine scans, just to keep fresh images coming!'

'Ralph scans, eh? That's bad,' said the superintendent.

I found that I was laughing quite loudly. Everyone was laughing. Even the superintendent grinned in a tolerant way. 'You'd better all come out and have a drink,' he said quite genially. 'I've got a few dozen cans of Tui in the car. We could do with it.'

We went through the big double gates of the prison, into the road. 'Ralph magazines!' exclaimed Bridget Saunders suddenly, and burst into a loud chuckling. We all began laughing again. At that moment Farrar's anecdote seemed extraordinarily funny. We all had a drink together, reporter and New Zealander alike, quite amicably. O’Sullivan was still unconscious a hundred yards away.