All three of the men were chained through loops in the leather belts about their waists and to the handcuffs, and all three were manacled about the ankles, and as the van moved along they swayed together on the steel bench that ran down this narrow steel corridor. Each had no expression, just the need to last out this canned heat. All three men were watched over by a guard who rested his head against the grill, his back to the cab. He was an old man, in his late fifties, early sixties. He had done this prisoner run many times. And as far as he knew, he would do it many times more. Then he would retire and set off with his wife in a ute or a jeep and travel the coast roads and the desert heart of the continent. Become a grey nomad.
Frank was the man in the middle, and when he closed his eyes he saw a little girl in a dusty pale dress, running out into the road. Hair so blond it was almost white. So light it blew in the roadside wind. This was what he saw when he closed his eyes, though the heat was immense and made his scalp prickle and sweat run down the groove of his muscular back, shirt sticking to his skin.
When he opened his eyes all he saw was the white painted sheet of metal, a transom that divided the van interior. On the other side there was another corridor, another cell, another bench.
The man closest the door was darkly skinned, an oriental look to his black eyes. He was richly covered with tattoos, beautifully wrought, spread wings across the back of his neck, whorls on his arms. An eye and stars in the web of his right hand, a court jester on his wrist. The hair on his dark brown scalp was down to a fine bristle. He sat and stared through the grilled window at the passing shadows.
On Frank’s right was a smaller man, sitting hunched up, thin shoulders, a pale skinny neck and close cropped hair the colour of wheat. He raised his head and looked at the guard.
Eh! What about some air?
But to Frank there was only one thing. This one thing. This was all there was. The low sunlight, the road opaque through the rear window of the police car, that little girl running out and standing there in the roadside dirt, growing smaller as he twisted around to see her just for one moment more. Just one moment more. The car accelerating away, the officer telling him to sit forwards. Him needing to see that small speck of a girl in the pale grass. His wife running out from the house to scoop her up, the policeman telling him to sit the fuck down but he didn’t care. He had to see her. The trees blotting everything out suddenly as the car turned off Argent Street, taking his last sight of her away. Him muttering, Poke. Pokemon. Pocket Monster, as the car moved along past the white bungalows, the wire fences, the utes, the neat street signs, the bottle shop, the town hall, the road away.
This place is like a bloody oven. I’m being boiled alive, said the skinny man, and Frank opened his eyes.
The guard tapped at the grill set in the cab wall.
One of your mates bashed in the aircon, said the guard. So there’s no air. You’ll live.
Well what about a drink, eh? I’m dyin of thirst.
You’ve enough spit to talk, haven’t you? I told you, no more water. No toilet break till we get there.
What d’you reckon? he said to Frank.
He watched Frank with one eye open, the other almost closed. Breathing deeply, his green T-shirt giving off a sour smell. A pasty, scaly faced fella. A man Frank did not like. Frank shook his head.
You? he said to the man to Frank’s left, who turned and regarded him and turned up his lip then turned away again. Jeez, said the skinny man, though his voice was less lively now. You lot could talk the legs off an iron pot.
Then he went quiet, and Frank closed his eyes again. She was three years old when she ran out to see him, that last time. All the way from the back door, across the clay floor of the yard to the wire gate, shouting, Dad Dad Daddeee. Her little legs going. The officer in the car turning to him, saying, You’re not goin to see that little chick till she’s a grown woman, mate. Well, now his parole was coming up. Maybe in a couple or three months he’d walk down some long road to that little girl once again. And this was all there was. This one thing.