Topic: Gaining Acceptance by Peter Farrell

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Gaining Acceptance is a 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition entry by Peter Farrell

Archived version here.

It was hot and sticky at Auckland Airport. All the garish trappings of Christmas had fitted in very well at Heathrow when I had left London two days previously. Christmas belonged in the cold and dark. Not in this country, where sharp summer light presided over barbecues and cicadas rather than snowmen and chestnuts.

“G’day. Got your passport?”

I handed over my brand new passport with its one lonely entry: Permitted to enter. 20 December 1965.

The young man from New Zealand Immigration looked over the document and casually slipped it into his briefcase. He had a ruddy outdoors face, cropped blond hair and blank, disinterested eyes. With thick hairy thighs crowded into grey shorts and long woollen socks, there was an air of a truculent sixth former about him.

“You’ll get the passport back after two years. Here’s your receipt, your bus chit to the station and your ticket for the train to National Park. That’s the nearest station for Waikune Prison where your job is.”

He glanced at a crumpled paper in his hand.

“It says here that you are to ring them when you get there and someone will pick you up.” He folded the paper into his back pocket with an air of dismissal. 

“You’ll find the bus to the railway station outside the airport.”

The official at New Zealand House in London had been more welcoming. He had smiled when he casually described the central North Island as the arsehole of New Zealand. I had laughed uneasily, but Brenda and I had devoured the literature provided for assisted immigrants. There was talk in that of hard work and hard play and Jack being as good as his master. The pictures showed contented men in double breasted suits smoking pipes and women happily pushing prams.

The Justice Department had urgently needed a clerk at Waikune Prison. I was to fly out ahead of the family. I didn’t question why a clerk with unexceptional scholastic achievements should be so much in demand for work in a prison camp in the middle of nowhere. I thought that a few pounds deposit to fly us all out there in exchange for two years’ work was a reasonable deal. England was swinging, they said, but not if you were married with a small child and a mortgage.

Auckland Railway Station was cavernous. The excited chatter of Christmas holiday makers waiting for the Wellington train echoed across empty platforms. I walked past the red, weather beaten, railway carriages, looking for my seat. The train was crowded. There was a smell of fish and chips and beer as families settled in for the long overnight journey to Wellington. My last meal had been served up by BOAC somewhere over Darwin. There did not seem to be a dining car. I didn’t have any money for that anyway.

Soon, most of the passengers were asleep. The setting sun played through the windows as we rattled towards Hamilton. Somewhere a guitar was being gently strummed. The Christmas carol was familiar, but incongruous to me in those surroundings.

“National Park next.”

The guard moved through the darkened carriage with a torch. Anxious that I would miss the stop, I lifted my cases down, stumbled over the snoring, farting bodies next to mine and struggled towards the exit door. It took the train a further hour to labour up the Raurimu spiral outside Taumarunui while I waited patiently, peering out into the night. I thought of Brenda and the baby in London. I was glad they weren’t with me.

I wiped the steamy window and peered out, forehead against the cold glass. Looming in the darkness, there were glimpses of dark green bush, glistening wet. Lowering the window, I caught what would become the familiar sweet, dank, smell of the New Zealand bush.

Steam and smoke poured from the black steam engine as it finally halted at National Park Station. I jumped down onto a dark, empty platform, slippery with early morning dew. I had been rehearsing this moment in my head ever since I left Heathrow. I breathed deeply, looking for that revelation of ‘arrival’ that many immigrants seek but few find.

The train lumbered off into the darkness. A railway crossing bell rang out in the distance and then there was a deep, empty silence. The station buildings were in darkness, save for a flickering light bulb, illuminating what looked like a ticket office. The office was empty. I pushed open the exit door and look around outside, confident that there would be some transport for me. The landscape was overwhelming. Etched black against the sky was the unmistakable shape of a volcano. I was a Lilliputian confronted by Gulliver’s world.

I shivered against the cold mountain air and drew my new Marks and Spencer duffel coat around me. My sense of arrival and alienation were complete.

There was a wind-up black phone back in the ticket office.

“Waikune Prison.”

The voice sounded sleepy and irritable. I gave my name.

“Who?”

I gave my name again.

“Nobody here called that.”

I could sense he was about to hang up

“No. Sorry. I’m starting work there to-morrow,” I said.

The official in New Zealand House had advised me to never to say I was just out from England.

“You the new Pom?”

“Yes. I’ve just come off the Auckland train. The station’s all closed up.”

“Not surprised. Don’t you know its 2am? Anyway, old Ron usually gets pissed on Fridays.” Presumably Ron was the stationmaster.

“There should be a van up there somewhere for you. It’s a Bedford. The keys will be on the sunshield. Just go up to the main road and turn right. It’ll take you about half an hour.”

“I don’t have a New Zealand licence.”

I didn’t like to admit that I didn’t have a driving licence of any sort, having failed my test three times.

“Christ. I sometimes wonder how you bastards ever won the war. Just find the bloody van and drive it. We’ll sort out the paperwork later.”

I sensed he was beginning to enjoy himself.

I found the van in the car park. New Zealand Government was painted in white on rusty grey bodywork. I loaded on my stuff and nervously climbed into the cab. I had just got off my first plane flight and, now, I was about to drive myself for the first time without an instructor in the passenger seat. I pressed the ignition and the van shivered into life. Co-ordinating the clutch and gears had always been my downfall and I stalled the motor twice before pulling away in a spray of gravel.

By the time I got to the main road I had discovered which of the mysterious switches turned on the lights. The headlights picked out a narrow, uneven road. The occasional wisp of foliage reached out of the bush and smacked against the windscreen.

Waikune was a low security prison. But for the floodlit compound, the prison buildings had the appearance of a large, unkempt motel rather than a prison. Prisoners were locked down and checked at night but there were no walls or fences in evidence. The Justice Department obviously felt the inhospitable mountain bush surrounding the prison for miles around was containment enough.

I followed the lights to what looked like a reception area and jumped down from the van.

A figure emerged.

“Took you long enough”

He was a short wiry man with a pugnacious thrust to his chin.

“Go down to the single jokers’ quarters.”

He waved to a smaller, motel like building a few yards from the prison compound.

“You’re in room number 8. Breakfast is at 7.00.”

So, with no wife in evidence, I was to be treated as a single joker. Room No 8 was equipped with an iron bedstead, a sink and a wooden desk. There was no chair. One wall was plastered with curling, sun-blued posters of Dusty Springfield. Like the inmates, single jokers had to share ablution facilities. I emptied my small suitcase and killed time until breakfast. I was due to start work that morning so I did not dare go to sleep.

“I’m Henry.”

The inmate kitchen hand was immaculately turned out in carefully pressed whites.

“I do the breakfast cooking for the jokers coming off the night shift. What do you want? We got mince, lamb chops, eggs, anything really.”

He fussed over the stainless steel trays, waiting for my answer.

“You must be absolutely stuffed after all that travel.”

He seemed concerned. I was hardly Captain Cook but it was good to have someone acknowledge my journey.

Henry was the only inmate allowed in the Single Officers Quarters. I was the new Pom. We were both outsiders. I was soon to learn a lot from him about how to gain acceptance from my new colleagues.

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This page archived ant Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/LQ3D-KVGG

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Gaining Acceptance by Peter Farrell


Year:1965
Note:About the Author: Peter Farrell has just published his memoir The Lie That Settles. This is an extract from an earlier draft of the book. Go to www.theliethatsettles.com. He has an advanced diploma in applied arts from Whitireia Community Polytechnic. He is also a graduate of the Massey University Life Writing Course. He has contributed to a number of short story anthologies and journals, including The Magpie Stole My Heart, and has had work accepted by Radio New Zealand. He lives with his wife Sue in Petone near Wellington.