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Tony O’Brien

To Live and Work

There had been many arrests. A face, familiar from my morning train ride to the city, would be absent for a period and then return, gaunt and haunted. Such people never spoke of their experiences; some even denied their absence and simply said the point is to live and work. Some didn’t return at all. There were rumors of camps, and trucks that rumbled out of the prison by night, returning before daybreak so that no-one knew what they carried.

To live and work. The old Government had long since given up referring to itself as the Government and instead called itself the State. The purpose of the State, we were told, was to allow its people to live and work. No more. What individuals could achieve for themselves was their own affair. The State was responsible only for ensuring jobs for all, and for restraining its citizens. Officially, there was full employment and no arbitrary imprisonment. The gangs that had ruled the businesses, schools and universities, and the administration of civic affairs had been brought to heel, and there was a kind of peace. Peace is always relative. One person, left alone to lead whatever life they can as a worker, as mother or father, tenement dweller or itinerant, feels fulfilled; others find their most basic desires thwarted. To walk the streets by moonlight, to drink coffee and gossip in a pavement café, to flick the TV remote and find a choice of channels, to read the book of one’s choosing, these pleasures have no part in the peace we now enjoy. Some of the old ways endure. We can watch our national team, there are coffee houses which double as information centers, and it is permissible to walk through the streets at certain times. But any departure from the chosen regime, and wandering off the path, can be an occasion for detention and questioning, for the suspension of what passes for life, and the dread that it will never return. To live and work. Why would we want more?

My own arrest came on the eve of my wedding. Maria and I had been engaged a short time and decided to marry quickly and without fuss. We planned a small ceremony, and a party in the disused hall of the Auckland Organ Society. Some musician friends agreed to perform, and to waive their fee, and we saved a small amount to provide food and champagne. As we made the final preparations the night before, there was a loud knock, with an insistent demand that we open the door. Before I rose from my seat three men were in the room, their drab grey illuminated by the blue light that flashed from the street. There were no explanations; none were necessary. It had become common for those considered inconvenient to be stolen in the night.

There were six of us in the back of the van, cramped together with guards at either end. I gazed at the shoes of my fellow captives, trying to read their characters. One man wore a pair of Nike trainers, but when I sneaked a glance at him I saw that he wasn’t at all athletic. Another wore cherry red docs, at least they’d been red before they’d been scraped and grazed until the raw leather showed through. The others told me nothing, just shoes that could have been anyone’s. My own sneakers looked out of place, the sort of thing you wear to the pub at the weekend, or to the beach. As we drove past the shops, light swept across the van, adding briefly to the murk of the single lamp.

When we arrived the prison was silent. We were driven to an enclosed courtyard, and I heard the gates grind together before the doors of the van opened. There was a low moon and the beginnings of rain, so that the tarseal gave off a warm aroma. I had little time to enjoy it as we were marched inside.

I recognized Martin, a musician who was to play at our wedding. He had worked on the newspaper with me, and wrote songs and poems. Martin had written a sonnet for my wedding.

‘For love, and for lovers,’ he said, and we kissed him.

One man insisted he was a lawyer and would call on his colleagues to deliver him.

‘I have friends,’ he insisted. ‘Some very prominent people. They will not allow this.’

Of course it was no use. He would have been better to feign humility, to look perplexed and hopeful. He was the first of our group to be taken to a cell, and the rest of us heard his protestations fade down the corridor. Then a door clicked shut and we heard no more. My fellow prisoners and I exchanged glances, enough to show that we understood, but not enough to provoke retribution from the guards. I had the peculiar sense that I’d been there before. People talk of these times as if they were dreaming. There’s a sense of separation from the world that only a dream seems adequate to describe. But I felt the reverse; that my life was a dream from which I was now being shaken awake.

There were questions. We were taken one by one to a small room and made to sit at a table. We were questioned by a man who we were told was a member of the Special Police. I asked the man for identification, and was laughed at for my trouble. Why wasn’t I working for one of the Departments? Why did it take so long to complete my studies? It was well known that students of history brought only trouble. That was something that would be put right in the next round of reforms. Why had I chosen to host a private celebration following my wedding? Was the civil ceremony not enough? It was enough for others.

My interrogator was interested in what I wrote.

‘We know you have a computer,’ he said. ‘And we have a record of your internet access, including all your email conversations. We even know what documents you’ve downloaded, which ones you’ve saved, which sites you’ve added to your bookmarks.’

As he said this, the man rifled through a paper file. I could see pages of entries, each with a time and date. The hours of mouse–clicks, file savings, web page access were reduced to something we’d understood years before: a sheet of white paper with black marks. I made the usual explanations, that my activities were not illegal, that I had nothing to hide.

The interrogator was quiet as I made a show of defending myself. It came as no surprise to hear my life read back to me. In my time on the newspaper I had written of many who had disappeared, always careful to couch my stories in the language of mystery; people had simply vanished; my job was to record the puzzle of their departure.

"I’ve written reports,’ I said. ‘There’s nothing illegal about that.’

‘Don’t think you can get out of this by being clever, Mr. Reilly’, said the interrogator. ‘We’re used to people like you.’

Then he sent me to the holding room, where men and women sat like wilting flowers, vaguely aware that the lightening of the room was the dawn of the new day.

We were introduced to the prison Governor, a fat man with a grey beard. He said little, only that we would receive no more than our due, and should not complain about the food. From there I was taken to a cell. When I looked out the slit window I saw that we were in the country. The prison looked like a disused dairy factory. There was a tangle of pipes and vents on the roof opposite, and large tanks. The wing of the building I saw from my cell looked abandoned. Tufts of grass sprang from cracks in the concrete, and a cabbage tree sprouted from a drain and arched away from the building.

The food was bland and colorless; mashed vegetables, meat with gristle and fat, the standard fare of prisoners. The bread was dry and rough, but after the first week I grew accustomed to it. I might even say I enjoyed it, in the way you come to appreciate the merest breath of wind on a hot still day. They gave me black tea with my evening bread. It was sour, and left a metallic aftertaste, but I liked the way it made my head swim, and lightened the burden of the night. After two weeks I noticed I’d lost weight; my stomach drew in and I could see the shadow of ribs.

Through the window of my cell I saw the first wash of color in the morning sky and the deepening shade as the days faded. My cell faced south, so that I did not see the sun, just the shape of the building cast over the ground, shifting with the time of day; sometimes swallowed by cloud. Occasionally the gates would open and a truck would drive in or out; at other times a guard would cross the yard on some mundane task. There were no trees in the vicinity of the prison, as if the ground had been poisoned and refused to support life. Sparrows that landed on the vents looked startled and disoriented, and flew off.

It was the silence I hated most; the long periods of stillness, when I listened intently for the smallest noise. The scuff of my own feet, or the rush of my breath escaping, were sounds that seemed full of promise and meaning, but in the end I had to admit they were like the ticking of a clock; they marked only the passage of time, and while a passage might be thought to lead somewhere, an opening or a new landscape, this passing of time led only to itself. There was nothing to distinguish the hushed clamor of one day from that of another.

The tea was drugged. It had the effect that I no longer awoke with an erection the way I had before my captivity, and I found no pleasure in the usual fantasies of a young man. When I thought of the touch of a woman I felt not aroused, but indifferent, as if such a thing held no desire; it was just another tactile sensation, no different to cold wood of the floor, or the smooth gloss of the walls.

I spent a long time on measured walks around my cell. I mapped out the floor; there was a stain I took to be a crystal lake, a crack I regarded as a mountain pass. The slightest variation in contour became rolling dunes, with beach grasses and the smell of salt. If I took several steps straight ahead I was on the South Canterbury plains, with a long wavy road shimmering ahead of me. Some days I walked until my feet bled. Once, when pacing my cell I felt a draught on my face. Pressing closer, I found a loose board beside the door. When I pulled at it a yellow sliver stabbed the dark. The gap afforded a view across the corridor to the room opposite. That room was not a cell, but had the appearance of a small sitting room, furnished with chairs, a couch and a bookcase. The room was carpeted in a rich, deep-piled brocade that made my feet ache to look at it. The next day, when I heard a noise outside my cell, I rushed to the door.

Through the gap I saw the door to the sitting room swing open, and a woman sitting on the couch. I could not see her face, but she appeared to be slim, with dark hair. As the guard passed my door the woman called to him. He entered the room, and she stood and kissed him. That night I dreamed of Maria, that we were married and sleeping in cool linen sheets. The noise of the sea rose and fell with our breathing, and the scent of kelp drifted through the open window. Occasionally a huge breaker would smash against the rocks, with a sound like distant gunfire. With one particularly loud crash of surf I reached out to touch Maria and awoke to find myself grasping at the ragged edge of my blanket.

After that I frequently stood by the wall and watched. I saw people come and go; visitors, prisoners, staff at the change of shifts, the cold glint of their buttons catching my eye as they passed. It seemed the room belonged to the Governor. A few times I saw him usher guests through the door, then pour drinks and turn the TV on. The guests laughed, the coarse laugh of those who wish, by faking amusement, to experience the lightness of the spirit that goes with it. But the laughter was too loud, and I saw the Governor and his guests plead with their eyes for it to continue, as it faded to mutterings and grunts, and the hollow conversation that followed.

On one of my marches around my cell I heard the clash of steel that presaged my meals, although it was not time for more food. A guard pushed the door open and stood back as a woman entered. She carried a briefcase, and was dressed in the dowdy garb of those who cannot tell the difference between a uniform and a collection of clothes designed to make the pretense of one.

The woman introduced herself as Sonia, and explained that all prisoners were assigned an examiner, someone experienced in the work of the prison, and who assisted prisoners to provide a truthful account of their activities. Sonia was to be my examiner.

‘I do not wish to be examined,’ I said.

The woman laughed. It was a dry, mirthless laugh, acknowledgment that we understood each other.

‘That is common,’ she said. ‘It is especially common in new prisoners.’

‘I will not cooperate,’ I said.

‘You should not be so hasty,’ said Sonia. ‘You should consider the consequences.’

I sneered at this, probably a little too loudly, and Sonia said ‘Your friend, Martin. He was arrested the same night as you.’

‘He will say only what he needs to,’ I said. ‘He knows how to deal with you people.’

‘You think so, do you?’ said Sonia. ‘I have already examined Martin. We have another appointment soon. I think he will have a lot to say.’

Then she left, the guard throwing me a reproving look as he pulled the door shut.

After my meeting with Sonia I expected to hear more, but I was left alone for several days. I paced my cell, spied on the Governor, observed the comings and goings in the yard. For a time I wondered if I had been forgotten, if a lapse in the prison administration might see me fed routinely, occasionally questioned, but otherwise neglected.

I had almost forgotten about Sonia when I was visited by the Governor. He entered my cell with the guard who came with my evening meal, and watched while I ate. The Governor enquired after my health. They were reviewing the rations, he said, and I could expect changes soon. I ignored him. He seemed offended by that, and said that in the end he had no control of conditions, his job was only to see that the prison ran as smoothly as possible. His demeanor was gentle and courtly, as if he wished only to be accepted by his charges. I noticed his thick fingers, the skin mottled red, with patches of white hair. He walked to the window and for a time gazed out at what I had come to regard as mine; the view of the derelict south wing and the wavering plant life that clung to it.

‘Not much of a view,’ he said. ‘I could have you moved.’

I made no reply.

Then the Governor said: ‘I have spoken to Sonia.’

When I remained silent he clasped his hands and turned them over, inspecting the clumps of hair and the pattern of red that seemed to change as I became more obstinate in the face of his cajoling.

‘You are foolish to refuse cooperation,’ he said.

‘And you are foolish to expect it,’ I replied.

The Governor sighed, then rapped on the door. When the guard came, the Governor left without looking back.

In an institution one day is the same as another. Your meals arrive, your toilet is emptied, you hear the shuffle of feet outside your door. The greetings of the guards as they open your door become one with the creak of the hinge. Every prisoner looks for something different, something that does not move with the dreary order of organized time. In my case, I had the chance events of the Governor’s sitting room. A whole day might pass with the door closed and no visitors. Or there might be a flurry of guests, so many that I couldn’t observe them all. It came as no surprise, then, on an endless evening after the last meal had been delivered, to hear voices across the hall. The door opened, and I saw that already a small group had gathered. It was evidently a public occasion of some note. The guests hovered over the TV in the way that reminded me of election nights. They were milling around the door, some gazing with curiosity along the corridor. I couldn’t see the screen; I saw only flashes of color, and heard the noise of a crowd. The national anthem played, then another, that sounded French. I heard a lone voice, shouting staccato commands. People moved to and fro in front of the screen, their movement having the effect of distorting the sound so that it came in broken waves. Then the guests paused in their movements, and at the same time I heard a familiar chant:

Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!

I die! I die! I live! I live!

The chant grew, guests of the Governor joining in where they knew the words. The crowd roared in the background, louder as the haka grew to a crescendo.

A upane kaupane whiti te ra! Hi!

Another upward step….another. The sun shines!

For the next period I heard the rise and fall of the tumult in Telstra Stadium. The Governor’s party echoed every roar of the crowd, but it was impossible to measure the progress of the game. Then, as it always does, the noise died and there was just the murmur of conversation, until one voice was plain above the rest.

‘I have the list of discharges, and those to be moved inland,’ said the Governor. ‘Would you like to hear the names?’

A hush fell on the room as the Governor reached into his jacket and took out an envelope. He unfolded sheet of paper and read the names. With each name there was a response from the guests; with some a spiteful snigger, with others a pitiless laugh. A few were greeted with shock. I took these to be new prisoners, or those considered obedient, but whose detention had been contrived by a malicious official. The names were simply a list to me, and I listened indifferently. Then I heard a name that made my blood stop. The Governor read the name of Martin Van Zyl. I became dizzy, and was forced to lie on my bed. I recall nothing of the response of the Governor or guests. By the time I regained myself the light was out and the door to the sitting room was closed.

I was released the next day. I was given no papers or certificate of my entitlement to leave. The guard opened my cell door in the morning and said ‘get out, you’re leaving’, and I was taken to join a crowd in the yard. From where we stood I could see the cell windows, a row of narrow recesses cut into the concrete wall. I couldn’t tell which was mine; I had some sense of how far it along it was, but without a sure point of reference it was impossible to know. I saw a face at one of the windows, a pale shape that shaded the light from the cell for a moment, then disappeared.

We were taken to Queen Elizabeth Square, and from there we were to make our own way home. None of us had any money, and we argued about whether a telephone operator would place a reverse charge call. Finally, an American woman, someone who had been unfortunate enough to be visiting a dissident on the night of his arrest, said we should make just one call, and ask that person to call all the other friends and relatives. I felt ashamed to have so little knowledge of how to live, how to negotiate the most ordinary of problems. I considered boarding a train, then making a play of having lost my ticket. I would be thrown off, but at least I would be part way home. I could do the same thing on the next train, and the next until I reached Swanson. In the end it seemed selfish to walk out on my comrades. We didn’t know each others’ names; a few faces were familiar from having passed my cell door, but that was all. We waited until one by one husbands, wives, lovers, parents brothers and sisters came to embrace us.

On my first night home with Maria I couldn’t sleep. I stood at the door and watched the fluorescent shadows of the street. A few people passed, but their heads were bent so that I could not see their faces. Maria made a cup of tea, and turned the TV on. I glanced at it occasionally. I found the glare too bright, the voices too loud. By the morning my eyes began to droop, and Maria led me to bed.

Friends called around, eyes like bright bulbs in their shining faces. No-one asked about the prison, who was held there, what the conditions were like, whether the rumors were true. They all sensed that there was time, that the true stories would leak out eventually. Someone asked about the paper, assured me that my place on the staff was safe, I could begin writing whenever I felt able.

‘We’ve missed you,’ he said, ‘and we’ve missed Martin. When you’re both back we’ll be able to publish again.’

‘I have no interest in causes,’ I said. ‘It is enough to live and work.’

Tony O’Brien grew up in Dunedin and has lived in Auckland, New Zealand since 1978. He began writing in 2000 after taking a course with David Brown at the Department of Continuing Education, Auckland University. He has published stories in Takahe and the online journals Carve, Summerset Review, and Espresso Fiction. Another short story, "Mrs. Mafua’s Hat," has been produced for radio. Tony works as a mental health nurse and lectures in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland. He is married with three adult children and can be contacted at

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