Poetry and verse Fiction

POEM: The Cabins

By | | comments |
(Image by Chuttersnap | Unsplash)

2023 WINNER IA Writing Competition: Most Enthralling Creative Work category


1.  They ruin our game

Me name’s Keith, Keith Raymond Higgins.
When I grow up, I call meself Keith Kelly.
Kelly is Mum’s family name.

I’m playin’ cricket with me younga brothers
And other kids from our street.

Mum and Dad are on the front porch watchin’ us play.                       
We live in North Sydney, 132 Mount Street.                                       

Mum starts cryin’ when the nuns come.
Dad hugs Mum.
Me little Sista hugs Mum’s leg.                                                            

It all happens at once.
The priest walks up.
He points to a cop car comin’ down the street.
The cops pull up and block our cricket pitch.
We stop playin’. I’m battin’.
I shout, “Wicket leave”,
So I’m not out when I leave the crease.                                              

I’m eight years old, me little brothers are six and four.

Mum waves her hand for us to come over.
The priest and nuns creep behind Mum and Dad.
A Bedford tray truck pulls up behind the cop car.

Me Mother’s been cryin’ a lot.
She’s got dark circles around her eyes.
She whispers to us,
“Pack your bags boys. You’re going on a bit of a holiday”.

The nuns chuck our bags into the truck cabin.
Me and me two brothers climb onto the tray, behind the red cabin.

I move a sack of potatoes to one side so me brothers,
Daryl and Laurie, have somethin’ to lean on.
So they don’t fall over the side of the truck.
Me mates sit on the fruit box we were using as a wicket,
One of ‘em is spinnin’ the cricket bat,
Like when ya decide who bats and who bowls.
Before the bat drops to the ground
Ya call "smooth side up" or "rough side up".

The tennis ball we’re usin’ for a cricket ball
Bounces down the gutter towards the truck.
We’ve used it so much, there’s hardly any white fur left on it.
It has bare patches like the skin on the local dog.
We "found" the ball at the local tennis courts,
(Before the owner knew he’d lost it).

As we drive off, I see me Sista.
She’s gettin’ in a car with my Auntie.
She gives us a wave.

It’s the last time I seen me Sista for 40 years.

A cupla hours later, we get off the truck
At the Sisters of St Joseph’s Home for Boys, Kincumber.
There’s about 70 other boys there.
We’re put into the bottom dormitory.

Mum and Dad come up to visit us once.
Dad’s not happy we were taken away.
But the nuns kept knockin’ on our door,
Puttin’ pressure on ‘em.
Dad isn’t Catholic.

“Mum, I wanna come home. I’ll be good. I promise I will.”
She says, “We can’t take you home just now.
Sorry darling, I’m ill”.

2.  Rough side up

We’re s’posed to be at St Joseph’s for two months.
I spend four years there.

Sister Thelma gives us beatings.
She uses a strap on our legs and bottoms.
Sometimes we have to take down our pants.
We don’t have underwear at the orphanage.
Sister Thelma also uses a cricket bat to beat us.
Rough side up.

Maybe six months after Mum and Dad visit us,
I’m not quite sure,
I’m hidin’ in a cupboard.
A nun finds me and drags me out.

She says,
“Your mother is dead. Get used to it.
The government will look after you now.
Accept that your mum has died”.

But I can’t.

One time Dad visits the orphanage and tells ‘em,
“I wanna take the boys home for the holidays”.

The nuns say,
“Mr Higgins, you’re Church of England, the boys are Catholic.
We don’t see you sending the boys to church”.

We end up not goin’ with Dad.

I’m always hungry.
I get permission ta go to the toilet
But I go to the kitchen and stuff me face with food.

A nun catches me,
“Did you get permission from Father Crabbe?”
“Yes, Sister, I did.”
“Did you?”
“No, Sister, I didn’t.”
“Get out you fucking little bastard.
If I see you up here again, I’ll kick your fucking arse.
Now piss off.”

I never knew a nun would swear like that.
It shocks me... Sister Alexis.
I dunno what Mary MacKillop would think.
They raise money for St Joseph’s Orphanage
In the name of Saint Mary.

There’s a cemetery at the orphanage.
1899 is the earliest grave I can find.
'Philip O’Brien — Aged 15 years'.
There are other graves. Four-year-olds.
Seven and nine-year-old boys.
But mainly teenagers.

The most recent death is a year ago,
April 1955.
'William Le Garde — Aged 14 years'.
Will is no longer alive.

3.  Goin’ dingo

I turn 12. Dad takes me home to Sydney.
It’s goin’ all right, ‘cept I get into a bit of strife.
I’m sent to Mittagong Farm Home for Boys.

I end up in over 20 orphanages, boys’ homes and gaols.
Mittagong is the second.
There are lots of beatings from the Officers.

They do a psychological report:

Keith is a quiet, rather serious little boy,
Who lacks the normal spontaneity
And lightheartedness of the normal boy of his age.
He still shows, even three years after her death,
Quite a strong attachment to, and dependence on, his mother.

He has few really constructive influences in his life at present
And therefore, has some difficulty in adjusting to the world
After so long in sheltered institutional life.

I decide, “I’m goin’ dingo”.
The window only opens so much but I can crawl through.
I’m the runt in the Higgins litter.

On the outskirts of Mittagong,
I see a taxi parked on the side of the road.
I open the cab door and "find" 15 pounds
(Before the taxi driver knows he’s lost it).
It’s a lot of money.

I walk down to the highway.

There’s a semi-trailer parked on the side of the road.
I climb on the back, lie down and go to sleep.
Next morning, the truckie starts up,
Drives about a mile down the road and stops.

He checks me out,
“Come on son, down. What’s happenin’?”
“I’m runnin’ away from me Stepdad. I’m goin’ ta Sydney.”

He says, “Well, get in the front”.
He knows I’ve come from, Mittagong Boys Home.
My sandshoes have a big number “1” on them.

He drops me off in Sydney.
“Just be careful.”
“Yeah, I’ll be careful.”

I walk to this abandoned house. Next to my cousin’s place.
Little Alfred Street. I see a manhole open.

I climb up in the roof.
A mate makes a rope ladder for me.
That’s where I live for a cupla of weeks.

I do break ‘n’ enters to get money and food.
And I have a little bit of freedom.

I play with the friends from the neighbourhood.
They keep quiet about where I am.
I’m getting to know people and mixing a lot better.

I am 13 years old and free.
I didn’t see it comin’.
The next thing that happens to me.

4.  The last time

To cut a long story short,
I’m arrested trying to chop open a safe.
Charged with 22 break ‘n’ enters.

Dad tries to help me in court.
It’s the last time I seen Dad alive.

I’m sent to Mount Penang Training Centre, Gosford.
I’m the second youngest there.
The second longest sentence.
Two years.

If you play up at Mount Penang,
Ya get sent "Up North" to
Tamworth Institution for Boys.

In July, Dad passes away.

They take me to Dad’s funeral, under excort.
The nuns at St Joseph’s won’t let
Daryl and Laurie come to Dad’s funeral,
Because it’s a Protestant funeral.

After the funeral, an Officer excorts
Me to Central Station.
But I sneak off. Three hours later,
I’m grabbed by a man who calls the police.

That would’ve been my fifth excape.

They debate whether to send me to Tamworth.
They decide I’m too young...
Back to Gosford.

I’m forced to be silent at all times.
Stand at all times in the presence of Officers
And eat half rations. This is too much
And goes on for too long.

I smash a dormitory window and dive through.
I take off running barefoot.
From Gosford, I cross the hill.
To the mountain.

Gone Dingo.

I follow the railway line to Woy Woy.

I "find" some civvy clothes on a washing line,
(Before the owner knows he’s lost ‘em)
And put them on.

I get on a train to Sydney.

I go to a guy in Redfern.
He helps me out a little bit.
I know his name.
... I’m not tellin’.

Later, through me own stupidity, I get caught.
Charged with stealin’ a car at Parramatta.

The other guy gets away.
They ask me, “What’s his name?”
I answer, “I don’t have a clue".

They’d do me no favours anyway,
Even if I tell them his name.
So... I don’t say.

5. The Cabins

I convince the cops I’m 18 years old.
They send me to Parramatta Gaol.

Back in court, they say,
“We did a check.
You’re an escapee from Mount Penang”.

Sixteen years old.
Nearly 17.

Sent to Tamworth Institution for Boys.

All me birthdays come at once.
My worst birthday.

Put on a train to Tamworth.
Guarded by two ex-Army Officers.
We get there about six in the morning.

Tamworth — place of confinement.
Built in 1879 with warm local brick
And handsome stone dressings.
A practical and flexible design for a country gaol.

Tamworth Institution for Boys — Opened in 1947.
For the reception, detention, maintenance, discipline, education
And training of Children and Young Persons.

Tamworth locals call it “The Cabins”.
As if it’s some kinda holiday camp.

The prison boss asks my name.
I reply, “Keith Higgins”.

He smacks me in the mouth.
“You say ‘Sir’ here.”
He kicks me in the nuts.

I bend over in pain.
“Moving without permission.”
He hits me again,
More kicks.

It goes on for five minutes.

The Tamworth boss is Superintendent Guilford.

“You are going to find out what it’s like at Tamworth.
You will not talk to another inmate.
You will not look at another inmate.
At all times,
You will remain six feet away from another inmate.
We will bend you and we will break you.”

I’m excorted to the dining room.
I look at my meal and think,
“Oh God, where’s the rest of it?”

Three spoonfuls of porridge.
One slice of bread.
Half a cup of tea or coffee.
… Can’t tell.

If you look around, they put a cardboard box on ya head.
The box has pinholes so you can just see your food.
You have to shovel the food into your mouth inside the box.
The box stays on ya head day and night until it rots and falls apart.

Three daily sheets of paper to wipe ya arse.
If you ask for more, “you’re wasting it”.
And ya lose three-quarters of ya meals.

Officers come into my cell.
One says, “Give us a head job,
And I’ll look after you”.

I say, “No”.

He pushes me against the cell wall.
He’s up against me, so I push him back.
He lets rip and kicks the living daylights out of me.
He yells, “You’re gonna suffer from now on”.
And I do.

I’m dragged into the solitary confinement cell.
Every time ya do solitary,
You get an extra two weeks
Added to your time in Tamworth.

In the solitary,
I have to rub a steel bar called a "dolly"
On a metal grill in the cell door.
All day.
You get kicked if they hear you stop.

Guards also make inmates dig a hole,
The size of a grave.
You have to lie down in the hole,
While inmates fill it with dirt.
If you move without permission,
You miss a meal.
They test who can stay under the dirt the longest.
Like staring death in the face.

I’m so desperate to get out of Tamworth,
I consider killing another inmate,
So I’ll be sent to an adult prison.

At Tamworth, torture is the rule.
The punishments are barbaric.
They make a sport outta being cruel.

6. School for murder

Fifteen convicted for murder and manslaughter,
Even more convicted of rapes and other violent crimes,
At least 90 murders (including unsolved ones),
Over 20 life sentences,
Hundreds of years of prison sentences          
Are linked to boys who did time in
Mount Penang and Tamworth. 

Kevin Crump, Billy Munday,
Scott Simpson, Ray Denning,
Greg McCarthy.
Eric (Rick) De Vries.
George (Crime Lord) Freeman.
Archie (Mad Dog) McCafferty.
Peter (Grim Reaper) Schneidas.

John (Nano the Magician) Regan (he could make people vanish without a trace).
‘Lennie’ Arthur (Mr Big) McPherson.
Danny (Untouchable) Landini.
Jimmy (Whiskey Au Go Go) Finch.
Arthur Stanley "Neddy" Smith...

You can’t do to kids what they did to us at Tamworth
And expect us to come out the other end as normal.
We went in as boys and came out as animals.

'Forgotten Australians'  Report:
Tamworth was built in 1881 as a colonial prison for adults.
It is arguable boys who were transferred there between
1947 and 1981 were unlawfully detained.
Tamworth’s purpose was for punishment and deterrence.
It was a very tough life, arguably more harsh than adult gaols.
Punishment consisted of solitary confinement and meal deprivation.
A system characterised by punishment of the slightest infringement of rule
and "permanent observation".

7. The list

I make a list of all the places I spend time on "holiday":

Sisters of St Joseph Boys Orphanage.
Mittagong Boys Home.
Yasmar Boys Shelter.
Mount Penang Boys Home, Gosford.
Albion Street Holding Shelter, Surrey Hills.

Tamworth Institute for Boys — "The Cabins".

Long Bay Gaol.
Cooma Prison.
Parramatta Gaol.
Goulburn Gaol.
Cessnock Gaol.
Maitland Gaol.
Grafton Gaol.
Bathurst Gaol.
Woodford Gaol.
Numinbah Valley Prison Farm.
Wacol Prison.
Boggo Road Gaol.

Tamworth is officially shut down in 1989,
“After a spate of suicides” back then.
So now instead of torturing boys,
It’s an adult prison again.

8.  Like the wind

I am Keith Raymond Kelly.
Son of John Henry Higgins and
Josephine Gladys Kelly.

I am eight years old
When the Catholic Church removes me from my parents.

“Pack your bags boys. You’re going on a bit of a holiday.”

An unforgettable holiday.

I spend 19 years, five months and six days in prisons and institutions.
The equivalent of a life sentence.

Tamworth created a whole generation of
Australia’s most violent criminals and notorious killers.

It takes away our childhood.
It takes away our trust in society.
It takes away our love.
It takes away — I suppose in some cases, our fear.

A bloke called Sparks once wrote:
'Love is like the wind. You can’t see it, but you can feel it.'

I felt nothin’ for years.
And I got no help from prayin’.
There was no fucken wind in Tamworth.
... I’m just sayin’.

'The Cabins' is a short story, presented in poetic stanza form based on interviews with ex-Tamworth Boys Institution inmates, the memories of ex-inmate Keith Kelly and government documents, correspondence and records.

This piece has been reimagined as the stream-of-consciousness, first-person, present-tense voice of Keith Kelly, thus combining both fiction and biographical elements.

Dr Steven Gration is a freelance actor, theatre director, researcher, writer and teacher.

* Full IA Writing Competition details HERE.

Related Articles

Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.

Recent articles by Steven Gration
POEM: The Cabins

This short story, presented in poetic stanza form, is an IA Writing Competition ...  
Paying the 'Price': The 'no' case infected by fanatical Christianity

An investigation into the rhetoric of proponents of the "No" campaign reveals t ...  
POEM: The Cabins

This short story, presented in poetic stanza form, is an IA Writing Competition ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support Fearless Journalism

If you got something from this article, please consider making a one-off donation to support fearless journalism.

Single Donation


Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate