“Man’s most striking shortcoming is his eagerness to convince himself of nonsense. This is also his greatest strength.”
—Elroy “Bubba” Fowpend
From diverse eyewitness accounts, unsteady video footage, police reports, second-hand gossip and my own hazy recollections, I have painstakingly reassembled the events of Rory’s fortieth-birthday weekend. It is what it is.
I got Rory on the plane on the Friday morning, but even that took some doing. He was in prison, the police having arrested him five weeks prior for “defacing state property” and “portraying the Glorious Leader in a disparaging way” (he spray-painted a strategically aimed, five-metre phallus on a billboard portrait of the prime minister). This was during New Zealand’s brief and now-seldom-mentioned flirtation with communism. (It was doomed to fail. The government’s first mistake came when, in wanting to control access to information, it neglected to mention it was now communist. When it attempted to seize all private property, people had no idea what was going on, and naturally told it to f**k off. In response, the government arrested four and a half million citizens and sent them to prison camps.) New Zealand was under pressure from other countries on account of rumours of mass executions, so the government was keen for some good (albeit bullsh**) publicity. That was my way in. I invited journalist Peter Herring to dinner, got him drunk, and then arm-wrestled him for his job. I won. So, as the new chief foreign correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, I entered the land of the long white cloud under pretence of blowing a long white cloud of smoke up the glorious leader’s butt, in the form of a front-page puff piece for all the world to read.
One of the Glorious Leader’s chief henchmen gave me a guided tour, showing me sights such as a three-storey-tall hill of grain, intended to display the state’s abounding food supply. (I didn’t ask why I was only allowed to view the grain from a distance, or why it seemed to flap in the breeze.) He showed me a thriving factory, a classroom of obedient schoolchildren, and a state-of-the-art scientific research facility (which, judging by the carpet, and the Tropic Thunder poster on the wall, was formerly a video store). I nodded and smiled and feigned awe throughout the tour until I finally got what I came for—entry to Nelson Prison. The severe secrecy and threats of the ruling party could not plug all the horror stories leaking from that sadistic hellhole. Of course, there was no evidence, and the Glorious Leader denied everything, but this is what the world demanded—an inspection of the notorious gulag by an outsider. This would determine if there was any truth to the nightmarish rumours.
I was surprised to find, despite the prison’s barbaric, medieval appearance, how neat it was. And quiet. I saw no beatings, implements of torture or evidence of starvation. In fact, I saw no prisoners. Where were they? I spoke to the warden, showing him an official list of people detained in the prison, and asked where the ten thousand people were whose names were on the list. He smiled and informed me, wiping sweat from his face, that the list was inaccurate. Nelson prison housed just four inmates, he assured me, and every other person on the list was alive, free, and very much alive. Fine. I asked to speak with the four prisoners.
I spoke to them individually, in a barren room with barred dungeon windows and the glisten and whiff of a hurried coat of fresh paint. Armed guards with attack dogs supervised the interviews.
I recognised the first two inmates from a local daytime soap opera. Their performances in prison that day were on par with their television acting. They gushed about the joys of prison life (with excessive hand gestures) and how thankful they were, reciting the standard party catchphrases I had been hearing from everyone. The third prisoner I spoke to was jittery and couldn’t look me in the eye. He struggled to answer my questions and was soon dragged screaming from the room. I looked at one of the guards.
“The prisoner is easily excited,” he explained. “He needs some fresh air.”
I nodded. A minute later there was a loud crack from outside.
“And the gunshot?” I asked.
“A starter’s pistol,” answered the guard. “It’s time for daily sprint practice.”
I nodded again.
Then the final prisoner entered, wearing pyjamas, a beard and a fierce look in his dark eyes. It was my old friend, Rory Zanzibar—or at least an undernourished shadow of him. He had bribed the guards to let him stay for my visit (all the other prisoners had been taken in trucks to the nearby rugby fields). He interspersed his answers to my questions with an elaborate pattern of eyebrow raises, knuckle taps, winks, burps, double takes and whistles—he was using a secret language he and I had invented as children. I clicked my teeth together, letting him know I had understood his message.
The guards watched me closely as I left the prison.
I went back to my hotel room to write my article. While it wasn’t the gushing praise New Zealand’s ruling party wanted, neither was it the damming exposé the rest of the world expected—I wanted to get out of there alive, after all. I basically re-worked an essay about wombats I had written in grade four. I emailed it to my editor.
Two nights later—Thursday—I parked my rental car at the abandoned drive-in movie theatre about two kilometres north of Nelson Prison. I parked it behind the rusty shell of an old minibus—just as Rory had instructed. The only other instructions he gave (via secret language during my prison visit) were to bring a spare set of clothes, and to shave my head.
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