Budgie’s return, less than twenty-four hours after infiltrating New Zealand’s worst prison, surprised us all. After a whirlwind of shouts, cheers, bear hugs and high fives, we gave him enough space to set his case down, take off his jacket and loose his flowing locks from the absurdly oversized man-bun he had worn on his flight from Wellington. Then we wanted details. First thing was first though, Budgie insisted, and he popped open his briefcase and took out five bottles of alcohol, purchased duty free from Brisbane Airport. To me he gave vodka; to LaShawn, tequila; Nils received gin; Rory got butterscotch schnapps; and for himself, Budgie had purchased a fancy round bottle of whisky. Rory wanted to crack open his gift immediately, but Budgie persuaded him to wait until after the party tomorrow. From his briefcase, Budgie also took a plastic shopping bag containing a what looked like an internet modem with dials on it and about ten six-inch long chrome prisms, sort of Eiffel Tower-shaped. He handed the bag to Nils, who examined its contents with curiosity but not surprise, and then set it next to the television.
LaShawn distributed a fresh round of beers, and then we sat on the edge of our seats (except for Nils, who was on the recliner) to hear what had happened to Budgie in the gulag.
“Well, after you two left,” he said, referring to Rory and me, “the guards hung around the drive-in theatre for a while, letting the dogs sniff around, and then they headed back to the prison. I waited for them to leave, and then followed Rory’s directions to the tunnel. It was about a twenty-minute crawl underground—not much fun. Eventually, though, I started to hear thumping and a sort of murmuring above. There was a small light and I heard shouting. When I got to the end of the tunnel, two inmates were there waiting for me—they looked like reheated corpses, but you should have seen the smiles on their faces—they took me to Rory’s cell. The prisoners had started a fire at the other end of the block, and there was rioting all around, so between that and the prison break the guards were distracted.”
“The prisoners were in on it?” I said.
“Oh yeah,” said Budgie. “Rory had the whole cell block ready to go to war, and even die, to get the song written.”
“Jeez, that’s impressive,” I said. I turned to Rory. “How did you get everyone to follow you like that?”
Rory just shrugged. I thought he was being modest.
“So, I got to the cell,” said Budgie, “and Annette was already there.”
“Annette Dobbyn?” said LaShawn.
“What’s she like?”
“Oh, she’s real nice. Lovely woman. And a gifted songwriter.” Budgie shook his head. “A damn shame what happened.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I’ll get to that,” said Budgie. “Anyway, inside the cell, we set up the PRDs—”
“Did they work like he said?” asked Nils, returning the recliner to an upright position.
“Yes,” said Budgie, “but they connect to the driver one by one, not simultaneously. It took longer than we thought it would.”
“Hmm.” Nils stroked his chin and leaned back in his chair. “A simultaneous connection would be better. I’ll take a look at it later.”
“What are PRDs?” I asked.
“Proximal Relativity Disruptors,” said Nils.
“Oh, okay,” I said. “LaShawn told me about those. So, you really slowed down time?”
“That’s not what it does,” said Nils.
“Well, that’s basically what it does,” said Budgie.
“You can’t slow down time,” said Nils.
“All right,” said Budgie, with a slight roll of his eyes. “We didn’t slow down time, but we did something that had the same effect as if we had slowed down time. Fair enough?”
“Not really,” said Nils. “But continue.”
“Once the PRDs were in place and connected to the driver, Annette and I set up inside the perimeter—Rory had organised for the prisoners to set aside a little food and water each, so we had enough for about a month, if we kept to small rations. We had five ballpoint pens, ten sheets of paper and my kalimba.”
“Kalimba?” I said.
“Yeah. We were writing a song, Miles. I needed an instrument to play it on, and I was hardly going to drag my guitar through a three-hundred-metre tunnel.”
“How long were you in there?” asked LaShawn.
“Well, it was roughly three weeks inside the perimeter. Six hours on the outside.”
“Six hours?” muttered Nils to himself.
“So… hang on,” said LaShawn. “You were in prison six hours, but inside your cell it was three weeks.”
“Huh. How did you shower?”
“We didn’t,” said Budgie. “And those gulag cells don’t have toilets, just a metal bucket. We had to try and empty it through the bars in the window. Ha! Three weeks of sh** would have dribbled down that outside wall in six hours. Mind you, we didn’t always get all the muck through the window. Those cell windows are what—only about this big, right Rory?”
Budgie held his hands up to convey a square about eight inches wide. Rory’s face screwed up and he gave an unconvincing nod.
“Oh, that’s right. Never mind,” said Budgie. He stared at Rory for a moment. “So anyway, it was a nasty situation, but the songwriting—that was like… magic. Annette had this enchanting melody, and I weaved a few chords to float it over. And then there were the lyrics. I mean, you remember a melody, but words grab the imagination. We had to get them just right. Lives were at stake. That’s why it took so long—we spent nearly three weeks crafting the message.”
LaShawn set his empty beer bottle on the coffee table.
“So, you wrote the song?” he said.
Budgie nodded. “It was better than I could have imagined… It was beautiful. As soon as we knew it was ready, we powered down the PRDs, and the inmates took us to the communications room. They had captured it during the riot, and it was set up and ready for us to broadcast. The riot was still in full swing, like a thunderstorm, but that studio was a cocoon. As soon as we shut the door, Annette and I were in a perfect, silent world. The red light came on—we were on the air, to every prison in New Zealand… and we nailed it. First take, perfect. Annette’s harmonies were angelic, and the kalimba was powerful. They recorded our performance, and as soon as it was done, they played it on loop over the radio.”
“You did it,” said Nils, smiling in wonder.
Budgie nodded and smiled, but his eyes carried a burden. “When we, uh, left the comms room,” he said in a weak voice, “one of the prisoners, Phil, led us back to the tunnel. We went through a quiet part of the block, away from the rioting. I thought we’d be safe. But then from around a corner came this lone guard, no older than eighteen. He looked at us, terrified. I guess he thought his best bet was to take us on—I was caked in dirt and stank like sh**, and Annette and Phil had been in there a while, so they were as skinny as pipe cleaners—so he charged us. Before I knew what was going on, Annette screamed and ran at him.” Budgie paused and took a swig of his drink. He cleared his throat. “The guard clubbed her in the head with his baton, and she dropped like a sack of spuds. She just lay there all crumpled up, blood on her ear. The guard was as shocked as we were. Phil and I tackled him to the ground, and then Phil told me to get to the tunnel. He had the kid pinned, face down, and wrenched the baton from his hand. He yelled at me to get out of there. So I went.”
We sat in silence and finished our beers.
“Well,” said LaShawn, finally, “I want to hear it.”
“Hear what?” I said.
“The song. The song that ended communism. Play it for us, Budgie.”
Nils leapt from his seat and left the room; he returned a moment later with Budgie’s acoustic guitar.
“Here you go. Let’s hear it.”
Budgie smiled. ‘Yeah, all right.”
He plucked an E chord; the guitar was in tune. He cleared his throat and took a deep breath.
The song began with single stums and some aah-ah-aahs, and then launched straight into a chorus.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting.
Three minutes later, with the final chord of the performance fading to silence, LaShawn, Nils and Rory sat gaping in awe at Budgie. Glistening tears streamed down their cheeks.
“That was unbelievable,” whispered Rory.
“You did it, man,” said LaShawn. “You did it!”
Nils tried to speak but was unable.
Budgie nodded and set the guitar down, leaning it against the table.
“Thanks guys,” he said.
I buried my face in my hands, heaved a long sigh, and then lifted my head. “What the hell was that?” I said.
Everyone looked at me.
“What do you mean?” said LaShawn.
“Budgie was supposed to write a song to end communism, right? So what the f**k did we just hear? Tell me that wasn’t the song.”
(You have to remember, that was the first time we had heard that song.)
LaShawn and Nils glanced at each other; Rory looked at me like I was crazy. Budgie didn’t seem to comprehend.
“Um, I can play it again if you want,” he said, reaching for the guitar.
“No, no—I got it,” I said, standing up. “I heard the song. I just want to know what on earth it had to do with freeing people from a murderous totalitarian rule.”
“Well, if you listen to the second verse…” said Budgie, again reaching for the guitar.
“No!” I said. “Forget the guitar.”
“Look, Miles,” said LaShawn, “you’ve had a lot to deal with in the last few days, so you’re probably not in the best mindframe to appreciate—”
“Appreciate what? That the New Zealand government has murdered and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of its own citizens, and Budgie thought to combat that by singing about what—a mystery girl? Being lonely? You’ve got his love? It’s insane.”
“It doesn’t have to make sense,” said Nils. “It just has to work.”
“Well, did it work?” I said. “I mean, from the sound of it, Budgie left the prison almost immediately after recording the song, and then flew out of the country an hour or so later. He didn’t stick around to see what happened. So… we’re just assuming every prisoner in New Zealand revolted after hearing that song? For all we know, Annette Dobbyn died for nothing.”
“Hey!” said Budgie, jumping up. “Careful now.”
“All right, all right,” I said. “I meant no disrespect. It’s a good song. It’s just… How do you know it made any difference?”
“Here,” said Nils, holding out his phone to me.
On the screen was the headline: Prisoner Revolt in New Zealand, along with photographs of prison towers in flames. I scrolled down; the article mentioned a “miracle song”.
“Yeah, there are riots in the streets,” said LaShawn, checking his phone. “People are posting photos on social media.”
Budgie turned on the television.
“There will be something on T.V. about it,” he said.
On the screen was an episode of Friends. It was the one where someone ate Ross’s sandwich. We watched the episode, and then changed the channel. There were breaking news reports on almost every station, with that famous footage of the crowd gathered outside the State Palace, trying to tear down the golden gates while guards shot at them from the palace roof. Our pizzas arrived. We watched the news for the next hour, stunned and overjoyed.
I leaned over to Budgie.
“Hey,” I whispered. “Sorry I doubted your song.”
“Forget about it,” he said.
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