The doors parted, and the man walked out of the building. It was an overcast winter’s day. He hadn’t been outside for three days. He squinted for a moment while his eyes adjusted to the cold light. He walked forward. A breeze stirred some late autumn leaves on the path. The gates ahead of him buzzed and then steadily opened, and he walked through, slowly, but without hesitation. The carpark outside was weedy, and the roots of ash trees were unsettling several parking spaces. A white sedan waited in the centre of the lot. In that car was a journalist. The man knew the journalist was in that car because the journalist had contacted him earlier that week. It was the only car there. The journalist stepped out of the driver’s seat and greeted the man politely. He was clean-shaven and wore glasses. They got into the car. The man sat in the back. They began to drive. The man looked out the window. He knew this neighbourhood. Or he had once known it. Things had grown, changed, disappeared. There was a new supermarket, Johnson’s Fresh Foods emblazoned on its bleak façade. He’d never even seen this chain before.
“Mr. Cliff?” asked the journalist, glancing over his shoulder.
“Sorry,” said the man. “Sorry, what were you saying?”
“I was just asking if you were okay. You don’t have to do the interview if you don’t feel like it.”
“No, it’s okay. I’m okay.”
After a while, the car drew up outside a small bar. It was mostly empty. The two men went inside and sat at the end of the bar, near a fireplace. They ordered drinks. As the journalist was getting his laptop out of a shoulder bag, it struck the man that he had no money with which to buy a drink. It didn’t matter. The journalist would pay for them both, anyway, he thought. The journalist plugged a small microphone into his laptop and told the man that he was just going to run through some questions. It wouldn’t take long, and if there was anything that made him feel uncomfortable he wouldn’t have to address it.
“Okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” said the man. “Understood.”
The journalist cleared his throat and pressed a key on his laptop.
“Let’s get started. How do you feel about about. . .“
The drinks arrived.
“Thank you. Sorry, how do you feel about finally being released from custody?”
The man frowned. He hadn’t been expecting this. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting. The journalist looked up at him impatiently.
“No. . .”
“You don’t have to do this right now if you’re not feeling up to it.”
“No, it’s fine. I haven’t been doing much talking lately. Umm. . .”
The journalist sighed.
“How do you feel about finally being released from custody?”
The man paused and took a sip of his beer.
“I felt happy. Initially. But . . .”
“I thought I was going to feel like I had left a huge burden, the weight of nine years, behind me in that prison, but it feels more like I’ve dragged it out with me.”
“Okay. Let’s move on. Have you been in contact with your family?”
This stirred up anger and sorrow with the man. He didn’t even know if he had family anymore. He’d heard nothing from them his whole time in custody.
“No, I haven’t heard from them,” he muttered quietly.
His eyes went wet. His family. It had been so long. Too long.
“What was the most unpleasant experience you had during your time in jail?”
“Why would you ask me that?”
The journalist scowled.
“You did agree to an interview, Mr. Cliff. How about you just tell me about your experience. No more question and answer, okay?”
The man sighed.
Outside it was getting darker, and it had begun to rain. The man shifted on his stool.
“I don’t know where to start. Or how.”
“Do you see yourself starting over? Leading a normal life again?”
“I don’t think anything will be normal again. Ever.”
“This decade is a. . . a big black hole in my life, a hole that I can’t pave over with a new house, day job, anything.”
“Tell me more about the experience. What was prison like?”
“I don’t want to talk about that. I’m sorry.”
The journalist flicked a switch on the recorder. He leaned over towards the man.
“Just between you and me, did you have anything to do with the Beech Street incident? Anything?”
“Are you goddamn—“
The man stood up and walked out of the bar.
It was cold, the rain had ceased. He began walking up the street, past empty stores. It was early evening now, and he watched the streets lamp flicking on. Everyone was inside. Apart from the distant throb of cars, the street was silent. It sloped gradually upwards and then bridged the highway and the river. A dog barked.
He saw the silhouette of a family eating dinner, projected like a shadow theatre against the pulled curtains. Where was his family? They hadn’t even tried to contact him since this all started, years ago. His parents would forgive him, wouldn’t they? Did they even live here anymore? As for his wife and kids. . .they were long gone. Why did they take it out on him? Why should his parents have to forgive him? It was beyond the man. He reached the bridge. Cars steadily moved along the highway, each one going somewhere, each driver with purpose in their life.
Beside the highway the river flowed in a concrete bed, an endless conveyor belt It was quickened by the recent rain. They’d diverted the river to run along the highway when this became a residential area. The man stopped and looked at the river for a long time. There were leaves floating on its surface, all travelling away.
Someone in a car driving by would have seen a man at the side of the bridge, in the dark, holding tight to the railing. If the driver had stopped and kept watching, they would have seen the man reach inside his coat and pull out a folded photograph. They would have seen him unfold the photograph and look at it for a long time before holding it out, above the thunder of the river, as if about to let it fall. Then they would have seen something change, as the main straightened up and refolded the photograph, smiled, and put it back in his pocket. He kept walking.
Balmain Campus, Sydney Secondary College