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
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
‘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
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
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
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
‘I will not cooperate,’ I said.
‘You should not be so hasty,’ said Sonia. ‘You should consider the
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
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
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,
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
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