by Suvi Mahonen

The man stood waiting with his back to the desk.
It was dim in the room. Pale light struggling through the small barred window fell onto the tiled walls and floor. The shelf opposite the desk was stacked with dressings, rolled bandages and a large, rust-coloured bottle of iodine, to disinfect caning wounds.
I tried to swallow. Bile pooled at the back of my tongue but my throat was too dry to get rid of it.
The man took out a little notebook and pen from the pocket of his khaki shirt. His black fringe hung in limp strands over a forehead that was pitted in the middle with a bullet-hole-shaped scar. His dark eyes were sunk in deep hollows beneath twitching eyelids.
I searched his face for any acknowledgement of what he did, why he had me here. He remained expressionless.
‘Please step on the scales,’ he said.
I shivered even though it must have been at least thirty degrees Celcius.
‘Leave your shoes on.’
Warm sweat dribbled down the back of my neck as I stepped onto the scales in front of me. The man leaned forward and started moving the little metal weights that slid across the bar.
Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.
I turned my face away, clenching my teeth hard. I stared at the narrow examination bed. At the locked medicine cabinet. At the two guards standing watch by the door. And finally I came back to the scales.
The man clunked the last weight into place and stepped back for a moment to make sure the beam stayed even. I blinked. I’d lost more than ten kilos since coming to this place.
The man wrote my weight down in his little notebook. It was all very scientific. They used a system devised by the British in 1888 called the Official Table of Drops—bloody Peng had told me that.
‘It’s a manual for working out the length of rope,’ Peng had said. ‘It depends on your weight.’ He’d stopped by my cell, uninvited, after the pardon board rejected my appeal. ‘If the rope is too long, it rips your head off. Too short, you strangulate.’ He put his hands around his throat and made choking noises.
‘Okay,’ the man said. ‘Step down now.’
I stepped off the scales. My prison coveralls, damp from sweat, chaffed at the rash on the inside of my thighs.
The man closed his notebook and nodded to the guards.
‘You have any questions?’ he asked me.
I shook my head; I couldn’t speak.
‘I will see you tomorrow morning,’ he said.
I had no choice. The man was my hangman.

‘A Malay, a Thai and an Australian were on death row. The warden gave them a choice whether to be shot, hanged, or injected with the AIDS virus.’
Khee Boon occupied the cell on my right. He was a Singaporean who liked telling jokes. He only saw half his audience—those prisoners facing him in the row of cells opposite—but he spoke to all of us. Shouted conversations in Mandarin, Malay and English babbled between the bars. You got used to it.
‘The Malaysian chose to be shot. He died instantly.’
Khee Boon paused.
‘The Thai chose to be hanged. He also died instantly.’
I waited for the punchline.
‘The Australian said he wanted to be injected with the AIDS virus. So they gave him the needle. He fell down laughing. The warden wanted to know what was so funny. The Australian said, “You’re so stupid. I’m wearing a condom!”’
Everyone laughed. I laughed the hardest—until gagging on an inbreath, I realised I was crying.

Steel clanked as a cell door rattled shut. Restless inmates paced and sweated through another miserable afternoon, and in the guard’s office, the television yabbered in that high-pitched, whiny dialect I had come to despise.
I was sitting on the edge of my straw-filled mattress that lay on the ground, knees to my chest, playing Seven Devils Solitaire, one of the hardest solitaire games to win. Floor space was limited. Some cards were even arranged half under the bars to avoid the brown metallic water trickling from the leaking tap. I’d tried playing the cards on the mattress, but the stacks kept tipping on the hard bulges.
If I won I’d get a stay. My starting layout was promising. I had an ace of diamonds. I picked it up and moved it to the right near my foot. Spongy chunks of skin peeled in the cracks between my toes. I couldn’t resist the urge to scratch, to kill the crazy-making itch. Blood came away on my fingers. I went bare foot in my cell to try and keep my feet dry—tinea lurked in every crevice in this festering row of manflesh—but it was too humid. My feet were never dry.
Six of spades. I couldn’t use it. I put it on the waste pile and took another card. The game wasn’t going well. In a way I was lucky. I didn’t want to live here for the rest of my life. Every day the air was heavy with the stench rising from the open toilet hole, the mosquitoes at dusk, and the moans and mutters of men at night that never gave you peace.
Five of hearts! I had a chance. What was the point of trying to kid myself? I didn’t want to die. My hopes rose and fell like an imam praying.
Guards. Their heavy boots grinding into nubs of course concrete sounded threatening in the closed dimness, hard and unforgiving. One of the guards stopped outside my cell. Usually they counted us four times a day. Today they were checking on me hourly.
He nodded and strode off, slowly running his baton along the bars. Tonk, tonk, tonk, tonk.
I turned back to my cards. A king. I was going to finish my goal piles. I had to get an ace. One card remained in the stock pile. If it was an ace, I lived. If it wasn’t, I died. I picked it up and held onto it for a second. I still had hope. I turned it over.

The cobbled alley was walled in on both sides. A strip of sky divided the buildings; light flashed off jutting gutters, below that, grey.
Rod stood with the man at the back of the Chinese restaurant. The smell of fried duck, steamed rice and burnt garlic came from an open door.
I went up to them, fighting the urge to look over my shoulder. I knew there was no-one behind me; I was being paranoid.
Rod gestured towards the man.
‘This is Thanh.’
Thanh was a thin Vietnamese man in his late twenties with a small mouth and tufts of moustache sprouting around flaky lips. He wore rumpled black clothes—T-shirt, skin-tight jeans—and thongs in the middle of winter. Lizard tattoos coiled around his wiry brown arms. As he glanced at me, he raised an eyebrow, as if appraising my value before I was sold.
I took a step back; the heels of my Nikes struck the edge of the gutter.
Thanh reached into his pocket. He shook out a cigarette from a battered box, lit up, then crushed the box back into his pocket without offering a cigarette to us.
He looked at me again, then grinned, blowing smoke in my direction.
‘So you want fast cash?’
I turned away and cleared my throat to cover the cough. I could hear the street outside the alley, the idling and revving of inner city traffic, someone shouting, and the long hiss of a bus’s air brakes.
I looked back at Thanh and tried to concentrate on what he was saying. Details. How much cash he would supply; who would pick us up from the airport; the mobile number for a go-between in Kuantan who would facilitate the exchange; our flights back to Melbourne; and our fee for the job. Rod and I were going there together, but we’d return separately to protect the stock in case we were busted.
‘How long will it take?’ I asked.
‘Less than a week.’
‘What if we’re caught?’
Thanh laughed. ‘No-one ever gets caught in Malaysia.’
His laugh made me uneasy; I knew he was lying.
I didn’t want to be here any more. I should’ve been at home, studying for my exams. It was cold, but under my shirt my chest felt hot.
‘Let me think about it,’ I said.
Thanh’s face turned hard. He had eyes that told you not to fuck with him. ‘Let Rod know by tomorrow.’
I looked at Rod. He was busy studying a crack in the wall. Rod was my best friend; I’d known him for years. He’d got into serious trouble, and he needed this job. I’d agreed to help him, but now I wasn’t sure. The whole thing felt wrong.
I turned and started walking without bothering to say goodbye. The alley seemed to stretch further than before. My legs felt numb, like they’d been sat on for too long.
I wanted to go home. I could still back out; Rod could find someone else. I had to study for my TAFE exams. Eight months to go till I finished my course.

Rod made it home.

It was a grimy, windowless room with mildew staining the once white-painted concrete walls. Cigarette burns cratered both sides of the vinyl counter where prisoners stood talking to their visitors through the grille. The air was a taxi-driver’s armpit in peak-hour traffic: steamy and rank.
As always, my mother was there, waiting. Her hands gripped the steel bars; the expression on her face was eager, pained.
I scuffled over to her, my ankles tugging against the leg-irons that reduced my steps to an awkward little waddle.
She reached through the bars.
‘Benny.’ Then she started to cry.
In a way I was glad that she wouldn’t have to come here any more. The constant travel between Australia and this bumcrack part of the world had left her both broke and wrecked. She’d done everything she could to get my sentence revoked: paid for extra lawyers, harassed Federal Parliament, written to the Queen, given interviews to a media grabbing story after story about the young white man about to be hanged in an Asian jail. Now, I wanted her to rest.
She put her hands on my shoulders and tried to hug me. Our faces scraped against corroded iron. I whispered Sorry.
She squeezed me hard before letting me go. After a moment she searched in her handbag, pulled out a small white Bible, and placed it on the counter.
With a fierce smile she looked up at me.
‘We will see each other again.’
She meant in heaven and I nodded. I saw the desperation in her pulpy eyes, punctured cheeks, and the deep troughs around her sad, downturned mouth.
‘Next thing you know,’ she said. ‘You’ll open your eyes and see Jesus.’
I tried to hide my doubts as she spent most of our last visit talking about heaven. I didn’t want to take away from her reliance on God. It comforted her.
She wasn’t always this passionate about religion. A strict childhood loaded with rules had driven her to rebellion. By seventeen she was pregnant with me. My father was never around. I never knew who he was. Once, when I asked her, when I yelled at her to tell me, she said she wasn’t sure. After I was born she gave up drugs and eventually got a job. But it wasn’t until a house fire killed my grandparents that she returned to the church.
Now the church was all she had. She had no other family.
‘Look after yourself, Mum,’ I said towards the end of our allotted time. ‘You got everything ready to fly home?’
‘The people at the high commission are helping me.’ Then she started crying again.
I reached up with my shackled hands and touched her face.
‘I’ll be all right,’ I told her.
Her bottom lip blanched as her teeth bit down on it.
‘I love you, son.’
The back of my throat hurt. I wanted to say it back. I knew it was what she needed. But I couldn’t get the words out.
A guard tapped me on the arm.
‘Time’s up.’
My top lip curled into my gum. No chance remained for me to say it. Not with the hacks there, listening.

‘Do you really see heaven as a tangible place?’ I asked.
We were sitting on the hard slab of mattress in my cell, our backs against the knuckled wall, my feet bare, his sandal clad. It was dim but never dark on the row and in the fluorescent light coming through the bars I could see him nodding his head in that earnest, measured way he had.
‘Have you ever doubted?’
He was honest enough to hesitate. ‘We are human beings. We all doubt from time to time.’
That might have been true. But now was not a good time to have doubts as I sat here beside him, listening to the sound of sleepless inmates stirring in their beds, the muffled television in the guards’ office, and the steady tick … tick … tick of the metal clock. My guts felt like they were being twisted over a lemon squeezer.
I was terrified.
‘I don’t think I’ll make it.’
Father Cheng thought I was talking about heaven. He turned and looked at me with his lopsided eyes. ‘Remember John 3:16. For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son. So that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.’
Father Cheng had spent a lot of time with me over the last few months. He knew my struggles well. The shame. The fear. The heavy ache of remorse. He never judged me, never challenged the different beliefs I held, never felt it relevant to question me about my past. He was a genuine friend. We talked about a lot of things, not just religion. Some of my most comforting times in prison had been during our long conversations about sport. He talked badminton; I talked Aussie Rules.
‘I still have doubts, though.’
‘Then you’re in good company. Jesus’s own disciple Thomas doubted.’
I smiled. I was grateful for Father Cheng’s support, that he was here, spending the night with me in my cell. His duties included accompanying Christian death row inmates to the gallows.
When I asked him how many men he’d seen hanged, he refused to say. He simply put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘You don’t need to fear death’.
But of course I did.

I sweated under the glaring floodlights. The smell of old vomit hung trapped in the air between the rutted cement walls and the low ceiling above me. Across the corridor, a hose lay heaped under a copper tap, with a wooden broom and an upside down metal bucket beside it. No tap was in this cell, only a small drain, to wash away the waste of past men.
From where I sat on a plastic chair, the only piece of furniture in the cell, I could see the gallows door. Steel shanks bordered the archway over the tall stone entrance. The door was metal plated, with rivets around the edge and a thick iron bar that was bolted across the middle.
Two guards stood outside the holding cell. Their shadows shifted across the notepad on my knees.
I was trying to write a letter but I was shaking so bad I could hardly hold the pen.
A loud clank made me jump. They were testing the trapdoor. We’d all heard the sound before, reverberating down the row on the morning of an execution, telling us the hangman had pulled the lever, or the gear as Peng called it.
I looked back down at the notepad again. I was nearly out of time. This was my last chance to write to my mother. To give her words of comfort. I wished that I had told her that I loved her when we’d said goodbye. I hated that I hadn’t. I wanted to write it down—tell her I loved her, let her know.
The pressure in the block was building. I heard the raised voice of a guard in the distance, the cough of a nervy inmate, and the metal gate at the end of the corridor clanging open and closed, open and closed.
I bit the skin on the inside of my cheek; blood oozed over my tongue as I forced myself to write.

Dear Mum,
I wanted to thank you for all the things you’ve done for me. None of this
is your fault. I’m sorry for the shame. I want you to know how much ——

In the charged air, the scraping sound was loud, harsh, like something heavy being dragged over concrete. I looked up. The gallows door was opening. Light from the death chamber arced out across the corridor.
I stared at the widening gap as a guard pushed the door towards the thick stone pillar. The guard bent down, then drove a stake into a ground socket to secure the door open.
He straightened up again, then moved to one side and stood at attention.
The row became silent as the hangman and his team filed out through the gallows door.
A moan that I wasn’t ready rose halfway up my throat.
I hadn’t finished my letter, telling my mother that I loved her. But I couldn’t keep writing. I had to stand up. I wouldn’t face them sitting down.
I put the notepad on the ground and got to my feet.
The execution team stood on the other side of the bars. The guards wore military uniform, their green pressed shirts tucked into high-waisted trousers, pistols at their sides.
Father Cheng was there as well. The expression on his face was sad, the time for smiles over.
I looked back at the hangman.
The same twitch was in his eyelids, the muscles in his face were drawn. His fringe was damp and shiny, combed neatly to one side. I remembered the bullet-hole-shaped scar that I saw on his forehead.
‘Benjamin Pearce,’ he said. ‘We have a warrant for your execution.’
I held myself still as he read out my hanging order. I stared at the steel bars in front of me with their flakes of rust, their tarnished grime. I thought about this life I had ruined. My home. My friends back in Melbourne. My mother. My dear, unselfish mother. As the hangman finished reading, I said a silent prayer for her.
The hangman turned and nodded to the guard standing beside him. The guard stepped forward with a ring of keys in his hand and unlocked the cell door.
The hangman stepped inside.

First published in ‘Verandah’ in 2007

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