A decomposing rat – or happy fourth birthday to my prison trauma

There is a dead rat lying in the gap between my psychiatrist’s building and the medical centre next door. It’s a big rat, at least 30 cms head to butt. It’s been there for a long time, skin is rotting off it in silvery shreds, white stick ribs glowing behind and between them. There’s pot plants around the dead rat, the self sustaining types that just need rain. No one goes down in this gap between these buildings but every single person who walks into Shrinkola’s building must see the rat. It’s been lying there for such a long time.

Shrinkola’s office is in St Leonards, a niceish blob of medical and office buildings surrounded by ‘happy family’ houses. The gardens are mostly manicured, the cars polished and happy. I kinda feel like they might not like this rat rotting on their daily constitutionals or rushes for busses. But no one does anything about it.

My best guess is that the rat died sometime while I was in prison. It was plump and moist when I shook out those first few months of trauma in fortnightly sessions. I hadn’t seen Shrinkola that frequently in years but needed the regular washing. Got some nasty dirt in my head in those safe cells. So I trembled my way past the fat dead rat, clocking it as a ‘thing’ but not able to do much more. I figured someone would pick it up soon, that I’d forget it had even existed.

Kind of like how I forgot how bad prison was till I went back.

I went to therapy every two weeks of the home detention, walking by the rat every visit. Shrinkola helped me massage the panic knots out of my brain. Afterwards I sat in the food court at St Leonards station and ate food that I paid for with money. I ducked into the newsagent, bought freshly cut fruit salad and ate Oportos. None of this really means much till it’s criminalised. When you’re breaking the law for a copy of Fortean Times or flat white, you drive it like you stole it. I started thinking again, breathing again. The rat’s belly folded in on itself, the whip end of the tail curled tight with shrinking skin.

I began to think about the process in terms of narrative. Capturing the plot points. Made first words of the book.

By the end of the home detention, ratty’s face had collapsed in completely, skin shredded away and teeth buried in dirt. Ribs were protruding but still covered with skin, tail broken in two at the bend. The book was coming together, I was bracing myself for the trauma (such a foolish fool). The rat was going to pieces while I was sweeping mine up and getting out the super glue. Again.

I’m back to monthly sessions with Shrinkola again. The rat is still there, rotting. I have finished a draft of the book. Which I think I like. The book has just been shortlisted for this amazing fellowship: http://www.varuna.com.au/varuna/index.php/programs/varunanews/item/329-pip-2014-the-shortlist

Four years ago today I was lying in a safe cell at Mulawa Correctional Centre in Villawood. A safe cell is a constant surveillance cell with no hanging points. It has an extra door in the rear wall for taking suicide bodies out so they don’t upset the rest of the induction unit. Your traditional 6×9 punishment cell – toilet, sink, caged-off shower, low metal bed, no table, chair or shelf – but converted to dual occupancy by a trundle on the bottom. I hung out with a derby person’s niece in a cell designed to break your will/keep you ‘safe’. They never turned the lights off, everything smelled like piss, the cameras never stopped watching. I went completely fucking mad, but quietly and on the inside. Every time I felt asleep a screw rattled their keys at the door to check if we were alive. I started shaking and didn’t stop for months.

The rat could have died today four years ago. It was April when I got out of prison and it looked fresh, but not too fresh.

The book, Snakes and Ladders, is about prison. It’s about living prison but thinking about it really hard at the same time. A little gloating sliver of me likes the expose aspects of this book. I like telling stories that people don’t want told. Corrective services don’t expect to be critically analysed and critiqued from within, they don’t make space for questions or thought or thinkers. They expect the fences and keys to work as well on your brain as they do on your body. Home detention didn’t expect me at all, fumbled the ball, fucked with my head. So I fucked back, with words, and won. Corrective services need to read this book. All of them, every single one. I wrote this book because I couldn’t live this again and keep it a secret this time. I have a voice, ability and position which lets me tell this story, I have an obligation to tell it.

I’m telling the secrets because them being secret is dirty and wrong. Kind of like a giant dead rat rotting a fence away from a busy street. Alright I’ll pick up the freaking rat. I’m ‘that guy’ reaching over the prison fence, picking all the little bits of power play out and dumping them in the wastebin of memoir. How exciting.

The book has been shortlisted, the rat is still rotting.

And the message in all of this drivel? The rat will be rotted soon. It’s legs are almost gone, buried in dirt thrown up by the gutter overflow. The tail is broken into pieces and greenery is growing through the body. Nature, even the filtered urban version, is clearing this waste away. Time is all it will take. The rat is feeding a burst of growth between the buildings.

I sometimes go days at a time without thinking about the safe cells. Not right now though. But time is an always happening thing.

Find out if I get the fellowship on March 31.

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