Penal Colony

It’s a $50 note. Jasmin only sees it because she has left the supermarket through the far exit to avoid running into someone she knows. The note is on the ground between two parked cars. She checks that there is no-one in the cars. She bends down and picks it up surreptitiously, like a seagull that has discovered a delicious morsel of food that it has no intention of sharing with its fellow scavenging gulls. The note is in the back pocket of her jeans now where it is snug and safe. And hers.

Jasmin carries a black handbag over her shoulder and in it is a red money purse. It contains her health care card, various rarely used loyalty cards, and three coins. Two ten cent pieces and one five cent piece. Not even enough money for a bus fare which is why Jasmin is walking the three kilometres to the nearest Centrelink office even though she is tired and cold. She wishes she had worn a warmer coat, there is snow on the mountain and an icy wind whips through her as if punishing her for her crimes. As she walks she hopes the queue in the Centrelink office will not be too long. She wants to see the people at Housing after. Tell them not to send her to look at any more places like that one they sent her to look at last time. That house had backed onto an alleyway where the local kids drank and swore and chucked empty bottles over the fence into neighbouring yards with the ferocity of a Molotov cocktail.

But she needs a cheap house for her and Brielle. And Tyson and Kye too when they stay. Next week she will have to go to her mother’s again. Her rent is due but she can’t pay rent and put food on the table in the same week, even if they eat dinner by candlelight and watch TV in the dark with doonas wrapped tightly around them for warmth. This is how it has been since they took her money away, told her she had to get a job now Brielle is at school.

Get a job, she was told. As if she doesn’t want to work. As if she wants to live next to a stinking alleyway, sitting night and after night in the cold and dark listening to the sounds of smashing glass. The Centrelink people sent her to see a nice lady named Wendy. She tried explaining to Wendy that there were no jobs for people like her. People with multiple criminal convictions to their name: stealing, driving without a licence, assaulting a police officer, even though she had only threatened to kill him and landed just one harmless punch. But that was six years ago before Brielle was born and Jai was put away for ten years for armed robbery. She’d gone to see him every week in the early days. It was birthdays and Christmas now. It had taken her a while, but she’d finally figured out that he’d been a bad influence and she was better off without him.

The wait at the Centrelink office will be a long one judging from the few empty seats in the waiting area. She shrugs her shoulders in resignation; she has learnt from experience that there is no point taking her frustration out on any of the staff. She pulls her phone from her handbag, and is about to check Facebook before remembering that her phone is almost dead. As she returns it to her bag, she remembers with a rush of joy, the $50 note in her pocket. Perhaps she will buy some credit on her way home.

When the man sitting next to her is called up, she groans silently. It’s going to be a long wait. Jasmin picks up the copy of a newspaper the man left behind. She likes reading the newspaper but it is a luxury she cannot afford. She scans through the headlines. The Reserve Bank has cut interest rates to an all-time low, apparently there is no better time to escape the rental cycle or build an investment property. Good news for someone, she thinks. She checks the court lists, recognises a few names. She reads about a million dollar lighting upgrade at Launceston’s Aurora Stadium which the Government is promising will be completed in time for the start of the cricket season. The money they are happy to waste on sport when people are going hungry and cold and homeless, she thinks. They took our money away to pay for this. She is still smouldering when she sees an advertisement for a Spirit of Tasmania mid-winter sale. $49 Spirit of Tasmania tickets. Jasmin has never been on the ferry to Melbourne. She has never even been on a plane to Melbourne. Jasmin has never been anywhere except to Launceston once to see Kye after his father took him away. She stares at the ad until it blurs in front of her…until she can feel the salty sea mist on her skin, the hypnotic glow of a full moon lighting up the way forward, the dim lights of her island home fading into the distance…

Out there somewhere there must be something, she thinks, overcome with emotion, her eyes awash with tears as salty as a hostile sea. There must be something other than this life. What does she have? A house without electricity, a phone without credit, a life without hope. Jai might be the one in prison but at least he gets three meals a day and a roof over this head. For some of us this island is still a penal colony, she thinks. She has never been to Port Arthur or Sarah Island but she remembers learning about the transportation of convicts to Van Diemen’s Land at school. People—felons they were called—convicted of stealing a loaf of bread or a handkerchief. People who were hungry and homeless and hopeless. People like her.

She spends the next hour slowly flicking through the newspaper. She comes across the Spirit of Tasmania ad again and reads it in detail this time. Don’t put your travel plans on hold, take advantage of our adults travel at kids prices special and escape with Spirit of Tasmania. Ocean Recliners are available from just $49. Just $49, she thinks bitterly, as she quickly and ferociously rips the ad of out of the newspaper and shoves it into her handbag. Just $49.

At home that evening she can’t stop thinking about the ad. As soon as Brielle is asleep she turns off all the lights, wraps her doona tightly around her and switches on the DVD of Titanic. It is her favourite movie, the scene where Leonardo and Kate are on the bow, windswept and golden, her favourite scene. She is not naïve enough to think that a trip on the Spirit of Tasmania will be anything like a voyage on the Titanic, but it is still a journey over the ocean to what is to her a far-away place. A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets, she hears old Rose saying once again. If only my heart holds secrets, she thinks. There are no secrets in her life, everything is laid out for the world to view if it so pleases. To chew over and spit out like a piece of chewing gum chucked onto the pavement. Her whole life is laid bare on the multitude of government forms she must complete, in the never-ending questions she is asked by oh-so-efficient government officials. So many questions. So few solutions.

Her money will be in the bank tomorrow. She can take it all out, forget about paying the rent this week and buy a return ticket on the ferry. Spend just one day in Melbourne, come back on the ferry the next evening. It’s a crazy idea. But it’s an idea that isn’t going to budge. It’s become incarcerated in her head just as Jai is incarcerated in a prison cell. It’s an idea that comes with every justification and excuse imaginable. When was the last time you had a holiday, Jasmin? Answer: Never. What’s the point in paying the rent anyway, if you have to keep moving back in with your mother? Answer: No point at all. She knows she won’t be able to stay in the house. She might as well move back in with her mother sooner rather than later. Her mother has a three bedroom unit. Tyson has one of the bedrooms and her sister Kirsty-Lee’s two girls are staying in the other. Brielle can bunk in with the girls and she can sleep on the sofa until Housing finds her a place. Perhaps sleeping on a couch will help. It’ll be hard on her mum but she’ll be able to help out with the girls and share the cooking and cleaning. It’ll work out. Tomorrow, she’ll walk up to her mum’s place and ask her to mind Brielle for a couple of days while she goes up to Launceston to visit Kye. She needs a holiday, after all.

Her attention returns to the Titanic. As she snuggles down into the doona tightly, a tingling feeling of excitement ripples through her. Leonardo and Kate are on the bow of the ship, bathed in the golden light of sunset. Leonardo has his hands over Kate’s eyes. The wonder, the mystery of it all is about to unfold…

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 Jasmin is nervous as she walks up the gangway. Inside the Spirit of Tasmania she is swept along crowded corridors, up and down staircases, as if she is being swept along by an unrelenting ocean current. She is squashed amongst a throng of people armed with what must surely be an unnecessary amount of luggage for a short overnight journey. She feels claustrophobic, as if drowning at sea. Jasmin is not tall, she can’t see over or around the men and women that are surrounding her. She imagines the panic that must have raged through the Titanic as people realised the ship was sinking. She takes a deep breath, tells herself to be patient. She is in no hurry, her ocean recliner will be there waiting for her. She is on D deck and knows she must find her way to E deck and then to the back of the boat, to the stern, to where—to use the terminology of the White Star Line—third class passengers are housed.

Jasmin is pleased when she finally locates her ocean recliner. The seat is large and comfortable; a pillow and blanket have been placed on the seat for her. Her seat is in the front row, she has an unobstructed view of the Mersey River which will mean an unobstructed view of the open ocean. Not that I’ll be staying indoors, she thinks, as she feels the ferry pull away from the wharf and her journey begin. Outside, she watches people wave to the boat from the banks of the river. She watches the lights of Devonport fade into the distance. She hears the heavy deck doors open and then slam shut behind her. Two groups of smokers have arrived to keep her company. She feels secure sandwiched between them. She begins to relax, feels the anxiety seeping from her limbs, imagines it being washed away in the wake of the ferry. She raises her gaze to the full moon. There is only one path for her now and that is to follow the glittering moonlit path over the ocean.

She returns to her ocean recliner. The lights have been dimmed; most people seem to have settled down for the night. She pulls her blanket around her although the cabin is not cold; she tussles with her pillow until she is comfortable. Her ocean recliner is to her first class accommodation. The gentle rolling of the ship is soothing. She feels like a baby rocking in her mother’s arms. And just like a baby she will do a lot of things for the first time tomorrow. She will ride on a train. She will ride on a tram. She will, if only for a few precious hours, be free.

Jasmin wakes at four thirty am. She doesn’t want to waste time sleeping. As she is leaving her compartment she passes a middle-aged woman coming back through the door with a hot drink in hand.

‘There’s free coffee in the dining room for those of us who can’t sleep,’ says the woman, smiling. Jasmin thanks her and heads directly to the diner. A sign says it will be open for service at 5.30. She helps herself to a steaming latte from the coffee bay, stirs in two sugars, heads back to the lounge and finds a seat in front of a TV and an unfamiliar American sitcom. She drinks the coffee quickly, heads back for a second cup. She is appreciative of the woman’s kindness. Jasmin takes nothing for granted in this life, especially not the kindness of strangers. This second cup of coffee she takes out to the deck. It is cold, bitterly cold, the wind savage. In the distance she can see the mysterious lights of the big city. Her fingers fold around the cup of coffee for warmth; she takes small sips, savouring the flavour. She is mesmerized by the wash of the ferry, so much so that she is unaware of the cold seeping into her skin until her fingers begin to burn.  I am an iceberg, she thinks. There’s what can be seen on the surface—a small, insecure person with bad teeth and bad skin—and then there’s the rest of me. Imprisoned beneath the surface. The bit of me that matters. My hidden hopes; my hopeful dreams.

As she heads back inside the ferry, Jasmin is acutely aware of how precious the next twenty-four hours will be. Because she knows that tonight she will walk back along the gangway. She knows that like those desperate, poverty-stricken souls who arrived by sailing ship from the far end of the earth long ago, she will be transported to her island prison.

She knows there is no such thing as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

‘Penal Colony’ was first published in Forty South Short Story Anthology 2015, Forty South Publishing, 2015