Spinifex & Sunflowers

Spinifex & Sunflowers

by Avan Judd Stallard


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Nick Harris has been drifting for years – until the day he finds himself amid red dirt and razor wire, a refugee-prison guard in a detention center. Nick is no crusader and no bleeding-heart. He’s just a man in debt who needs a job. Time passes slowly behind the wire, no matter who you are. To distract themselves, the asylum seekers tell Nick about their lives and cultures, and the families they have left behind. They steal from him with good humour, and swear at him with bad. Nick breaks all the rules: slacking off when he guards the cordial machine, swimming with crocodiles, brawling with locals, romancing workmates. And then there is the cardinal sin – becoming friends with the detainees. —- The novel is a realistic window into the hidden world of immigration detention centres, drawn from the experience of a former guard. It is one man’s vision, looking through the wire at the people locked inside our desert prisons, and looking out at the people who put them there.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781925164992
Publisher: Fremantle Press
Publication date: 07/01/2018
Edition description: None
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Avan Judd Stallard was born and raised in the south-west of Western Australia. He holds a PhD at the University of Queensland where he taught Australian history, and won the Dean’s Award for Excellence. Avan is the author of the history book Antipodes: In Search of the Southern Continent. He currently lives with his wife in the north of Spain.

Read an Excerpt



It's early and I'm driving through the bush-covered hills of the Darling Range east of Perth. A hangover is coming on hard and fast, and I know exactly what it needs.

I pull into the car park of the Mundaring bakery. I kill the engine, swing a leg over my bike and begin what very nearly counts as a skip toward the bakery door, such is my lust for a pie. I stop when I hear a crashing sound.

I look around, but there are no cars backing into poles, only my motorbike on the ground. It doesn't make sense. There's nothing near it. I go back and pick the bastard up. It's a heavy machine — a tourer — not the sort of thing you want to be lifting in my state. Once I have it up, I lean it back over. It drops to the ground again.

That's when I realise the kickstand's not out. So I pick up the bike, which seems even harder the second time, and extend the kickstand, whereupon it leans gently to the side. I don't check for new dents or scratches.

I totter into the bakery. The lady at the counter says, "Are you ok?"

And I say, "I'll have a steak and kidney pie, please."

I get a carton of flavoured milk from the fridge — the green one catches my eye and I don't think twice. I sit down and eat and drink in a vacant stupor. Once finished, I lean back and take a breath and presume myself cured. But then, partially revived, a thought comes.

Normally mine is a good motorbike, the sort that does as told. So why would it do that — fall down — on such a morning as this when I'm clearly in no state to be picking up great pieces of unyielding steel?

The caffeine or sugar or God knows what else that's hidden in green milk suddenly kicks in and a wave of clarity sweeps my mind. The whole sorry bike-dropping affair becomes eminently explicable. Which is to say, I forgot to extend the kickstand because I'm still drunk. Drunk as a boiled owl.

Before anything worse can happen, I buy a custard tart for morning tea and drive the last forty-five minutes to the Northam Racecourse, park my bike with the use of the kickstand and head inside. A few people say hello. A few people mention that I don't look too good and ask if I'm sick. I say yeah, I might be a bit sick.

I could just as well mention that I'm drunk. None of this lot would care. I'm already assured of the job — in fact, I'm already on the payroll — so my presence at the training course, however shabby, will suffice.



It's at a racecourse — of all places, we're being taught how to be refugee-prison guards at a racecourse. I don't know why, and nor do they. That also happens to be the first lesson of training: nobody in this system knows the answer to any "why" question. Shit just is.

The second lesson is that I am the only one who calls refugee prison "refugee prison". And that's a big lesson. That lesson is retaught every day. Words matter. Not words like wanker, slut, poofter, whore: to be used at will and without discretion. No, we're talking the far more important words of bureaucrats. So a refugee prison is actually an "immigration detention centre", and the refugees are actually "clients".

I head around the back of the "training centre", looking for Alfred. I don't want to drive here drunk again. There are too many kangaroos on the roads between Northam and Perth. If I can be so drunk as to not know how to park my motorbike, I might not be up to dodging Skippy — who is, despite every TV series, documentary and tourism advertisement ever shown, a wilful idiot and inveterate cunt. And, while I appreciate this is verboten to say in Australia, I say it anyway because I know it for a plain and obvious truth.

Until a person has lived with roos they have no standing to speak on the topic. We took in a total of four joeys throughout my childhood in Manjimup, each orphaned after a car hit the mother. It's common for the young ones to survive — the roo pouch is like a protective airbag. Mum couldn't bring herself to drive past a fresh carcass and not check, digging her hand into the pouch to see if there was a scared sack of bone and fur hiding inside. She would put the young and unviable ones out of their misery, but if they were far enough along she brought them home.

Clem hated it. He'd rant and rave, but Mum was the boss when it came to those sorts of things. Shitter — so named for her habit of shitting all across the verandah every day of her life when there was a big yard and plenty of bush to crap in — was the best of them, and even she was a moody ingrate. She'd let you give her a quick scratch under the cheek or behind the ear, then she'd suddenly decide she'd had enough and lean back on her tail and take a swing. It wouldn't be a mischievous swing, either, like a playful kitten. It was the sort of swing that said, "When I'm big enough I will rip your guts out with my massive mono-claw, human scum, but until then I will shit on your verandah and eat your cat food as I please." Still, I was upset when a dog got her. Even Clem was, the unsentimental prick.

The point being, there are thousands of unreasonable roos to dodge on the roads. Of course, I could just resolve to not get drunk to the point where I'm still drunk in the morning. But it wouldn't be worth a damn. Sober and rational promises are wonderful while sober and rational; they're worth nothing in the heat of the moment. Like when your cock is hard, or you're having a brew and that pesky incubus says screw it, Nick, have another, have another ten. I know he'll get me, sooner or later — the incubus, Skippy, one of them.

I find Alfred out the back on the steeples, smoking a cigarette, looking at the only green grass for miles. He's one of the few people who drives to Northam with an empty car. I arrange for him to give me a lift from Perth each day and I agree to give him some money for petrol.

I get a cup of tea and head inside just as training begins. I can barely follow what's happening, even though it's pitched at the lowest possible level of comprehension. After a few minutes I stop trying. It's not like it matters. Skippy could take my place at training and I doubt I'd miss much.

The fact is, every one of us at the racecourse knows that being a refugee-prison guard is a crappy job demanding little more than our showing up. It has to be, or we wouldn't be employed. Collectively, we have no relevant qualifications, no relevant experience and no passion for the task at hand. That said, we're all glad to have the job, and what we lack in passion is more than made up for by the greatest motivator humanity has ever known.



Meg is twenty-two, a local in Northam, which is sometimes known as the gateway to the wheatbelt, but these days it's becoming better known as the gateway to epic salt pans that consume wheat farms almost as fast as wheat farms once consumed the mallee bushland. It's also the hatchery for colossal dust storms that blot sun from sky, and dirty the hanging washing of a better class of folk living in the distant Perth hills.

Nevertheless, Meg invested in a piece of Northam real estate with help from Mummy, and now she has to pay for it. Which might turn out ok after all, because they're in the process of building a refugee prison right here in Northam. With the promise of all those jobs, you'd think that the Northam residents would love that, but no, they hate it. They think the refugees are going to escape and then rape, pillage and salt the earth. At least the salting won't make much difference.

Roy is my new mate. He's fifty-nine and has been fired from every job he's ever had. Once you have his confidence, Roy is an unguarded sharer of his raw, bleeding, pained soul. Roy tells me about a woman he used to go with when a younger man. His very own lover, companion, friend. Of course, this woman is no longer with him and it is the worst thing to happen in his life and if it hadn't happened, everything would be different today. Today, Roy has nobody and nothing. Hewants somebody and something.

"Ya ever been to Thailand, mate? Oh, treated like a king. These women don't care if you're old. They respect ya, you're wise 'n that in their culture. I met a pretty little bird there. She doesn't speak English, but doesn't matter. Fuck'n beautiful, mate. She's waiting for me to come back."

It sounds like she might be a whore, but I don't see any need to mention that. Anyway, Roy's booked a ticket back to Thailand for next April. On a credit card. Because he's broke. Roy really needs this job.

Then there's Danny. Danny looks like the dumbest fuck here because he's got a big black goatee, beer gut and a poorly rendered neck tattoo of dragon claws or dark flames or it might be a bag of pointy black dingo cocks for all I know. He drives a barely roadworthy Valiant over two hours just to get to training. Danny used to work security at nightclubs, but the pay is poor and once you get a kid, which he just did, that's pretty much it if you are in any way decent or aspiring to not be white trash scum. You need to pay for that kid. So you go out and get the highest paying job you can based on who you are, who you know and what you can do — which, for Danny and all the rest of us, amounts to nobody, nothing and fuck-all.

It doesn't mean we're all stupid though. Danny is the image of white trash, yet he talks with me about Ray Bradbury and Karl Popper. There's another guy who used to be a permaculturist, which I've learned involves a good bit more than planting runner beans and smoking bongs. And there's an older woman here who knows four languages, at least one of them well (a shame it's not English, as she seems interesting).

Then there's me. I studied medicine at the state's best university. I didn't finish, but that had nothing to do with ability and everything to do with loathing — of the instructors, of the medical profession's way of looking at the world, of the middle-class prigs with whom I studied, excepting my mate Keely and one or two others.

So I can categorically tell you that we're not dumb fucks — or, at least, not any more than your average sample of Australians. And yet here we are, because we all made bad life decisions — like the decision not to drive a massive truck in and out of a mine all night, then fly home for five days to see a wife and kids who don't know you and don't particularly like you because you're a prick. Why a prick? Because you spend three weeks working, drinking and fighting with a group of neckless miners, then get home and just want to fuck.

Which is to say, I don't have a wife and kids, I didn't end up driving a truck and I didn't finish my medicine degree, but I am going to finish this training course. Like everyone here, I'm going to be a guard at refugee prison for the only reason that matters. Debt.



Our principal trainer is named Warren. He's a big guy. Thick forearms. Fat head.

He keeps breaking down the "complicated" bureaucrat rules about what us guards can do at refugee prison into simpler terms that are borderline retard-speak.

"Don't steal stuff."

"Don't have sex with clients."

I think Warren was really good at his former job, and is not so good at this job. He used to be a prison guard. A real one who got to call himself that because it was at an actual prison with murderers and rapists and expectorators. Warren keeps hinting about all the violence he saw, and the violence he dished out. Warren angry. Warren smash. Warren has never actually worked in a detention centre.

The training manual is a massive binder full of procedures, policies and rules. Warren explains that it has been adapted from the parent company's prison guard training manual. Where it said "prison" it now says "detention centre". Where it said "prisoner" or "inmate" it now says "client". Where it said "guard" or "correctional officer" it now says "client service officer". Of course, there are dozens of slippages where the manual talks about prison and guards and prisoners. Oops.

Warren trains us to do headcounts; there will be at least three per shift. He encourages us to recognise detainees by a number, not their name, because that's just how it's done in the centres. He teaches us radio protocols and the international system of code alerts: green for an escape attempt, black for officer needs assistance, red for fire, blue for medical emergencies.

We're given advice about not trusting our clients and all the horrible things we can expect. Warren shows instructional videos. There's one that shows a refugee casually escaping from a detention centre on Christmas Island by climbing over a fence while the guards look on. Scott is freaked out by this. He asks if the client is still roaming free, presumably living a Robinson Crusoe–like existence as the Christmas Island Yowie. No, he is not still roaming free, you fucking idiot.

We visit a medium security prison to receive first aid training. Our trainer for the day is a first aid–qualified prison guard. She gives lots of examples of things we might see and have to deal with, all of them drawn from her experience at the prison. She tells us that prisoners are generally unpleasant and sometimes deranged. It makes sense. I figure I might be deranged and unpleasant if I was locked up here. The complex is utterly devoid of signs of normal life. It's a massive square, enclosed by razor wire, surrounded by a barren security perimeter. Which is to say: looks like a prison, feels like a prison.

Throughout all this, my thoughts turn again and again to the research project of a goateed Stanford psychologist with the groovy name of Dr Zimbardo, which always reminds me of Dr Zhivago, a very fine film, two thumbs up. It came to be known as the Stanford Prison Experiment and, if it showed anything, it is that even the strongest characters will tend to act out the roles they are asked to perform, no matter how that clashes with their sensibilities and beliefs.

Four decades later, here we are, a bunch of average Australians about to be given a uniform and thrust into an institution bordered by fences and razor wire, saddled with a swag of rules and procedures that must be enforced and told that we are the enforcers. Oh, but fellers, ladies: you're not guards and it's not a prison. It's a detention centre filled with clients and you are client service officers.

Who do they think they're kidding? Well, Scott for one, the short fat bloke missing a front tooth who's still wondering about that escapee on Christmas Island. I think Scott might be a bit dumb.



We're sitting around going through the big folder of rules when Roy suddenly gets up and says, "Nah, can't do it, fuck it, I'm out, nah, not for me."

Old Cynthia, who is very sweet, goes to Roy and keeps asking what is wrong till Roy tells her he can't read so well. He's good with signs and labels, but sentences are difficult, though not impossible, unless they have big words, then they are impossible. A fair few of the sentences written by the white shirts do have big words.

Cynthia is nice and encouraging, and everyone else, too, because five minutes with Roy and you know he needs it. Fifty-nine, a bit thick, suffers from verbal diarrhoea, drives a 1987 Mitsubishi Triton, lives in a share house in a town in the dust-belt, been fired from more jobs than he's had, and speaks like John Jarratt in Wolf Creek. Where the hell is Roy going to go?

We plead with him to stay and he does; he says he'll stick the rest of the day out, see how it goes. After lunch, Roy seems a lot happier because Warren puts the folders away. He begins explaining "control techniques", then we pair up for some drills. Roy is a strong old bastard and mad as a cut snake. He completely ignores everything Warren says and just lays into the body pads with the sort of vigour Warren can't help but respect.

"Take that, you bastard!" Roy says after every blow. If you see and feel that sort of punch, as I do being Roy's partner,there are certain questions you've gotta ask.

"Roy, you get into many fights when you were younger?" "Too right. I was a scrapper. Come from England when I was a little feller. Any bastard said something, bam! That fixed 'em."

The violence of punching and kicking pads is good for Roy. It's healing. It helps assuage his feelings of inadequacy after the episode this morning where Warren asked him to read out loud. Only problem is that Roy is starting to feel too comfortable. I can see why he's been fired from so many jobs. Now that we're up and about, a constant stream of shit flows from his mouth in a mixture of mumble and exclamation. "Fuck" and "shit" and "mate" are his punctuation.

Turns out Roy is an especially eager proponent of jokes involving rape, or violence, or rape and violence. Anytime another bloke is bent over, Roy is into him with a rape joke, or a spot of simulated fucking. I think it's funny. The sort of funny where someone is so irreverent and so clueless that you've just got to appreciate the utter absence of guile. He's like a twelve-year-old boy: spastic movements matched by boundless energy, thinks he knows everything, thinks he's hilarious, no conception of mental states that are not his own.


Excerpted from "Spinifex & Sunflowers"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Avan Judd Stallard.
Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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