Wishing Well : A Short Story by Zahra Pedram Jafari
Traveling is good. Actually, it is great even if it is just a day trip to some small towns around where you live. As long as you love nature, history and museums, you will always find something to enjoy.
It was on one of our day trips that we visited the Corrective Service NSW Museum. We stopped in a small town with a big prison and a museum attached to it. I was with my two beautiful daughters. We all wore sort of formal fancy dresses waiting in front of the museum which was mostly ran by prisoners and a nice looking old officer as far as we could see.
Corrective Service NSW Museum
The truth is that Cook claimed Australia for Britain in 1770. Australia as a country just formed in 1901. It has hardly 250 years of history and like any other former British colony, did not have a good start.
We were wandering around looking at signs and information on the walls. Reading about the first fleet and convicts who were sent to Australia.
Overall 160,000 convicts were sent to Australia of which among them were kids as young as 11 years old. The ones who stole a fish from a pond or cut a tree sat next to the ones who stole kids or were convicted of manslaughter.
The entrance of the musuem was designed like a deck with wheels and benches which came from the original convicts ships. A heavy iron chain with a big metal ball was next to the wheel and visitors could wear them to feel the pain of prisoners for a millisecond.
I was absorbing information written all over the small entrance hall and thinking how some people’s destiny was decided by others so cruelly. Sending men, women and children on a dangerous voyage to an unknown world with below average facilities. I remember this new advertisement on Australian national tv against exporting live stocks. It showed Australian sheep on a ship delivered overseas. They were cramped in a small space with fear and pain distinguished on their faces. The ad showed sailors throwing dead animals in the ocean on the way to the destination. They beat poor animals upon arrival on the shore so cruelly while forcing them to move forward. So ironically familiar!
Our Tour Guide
We waited for a while at the entrance to the museum before an inmate came to play the role of a tour guide for the day. He was bald, tall and had strong features with a kind of nice and friendly look. He wore a dark green shirt and shorts with a yellow on-duty type of vest. I later realized it was his uniform. It was the first time that I met a prisoner. He ran towards us, said hi and quickly asked if we wanted to have a tour guide.”yes” I replied. There was a big safe box close to the entrance door with a groove on top for a coin donation.
I asked if I should pay anything or buy tickets. He shook his head and said: “don’t worry about it.” He mentioned immediately that he is an inmate. We couldn’t ask about his crime or take any photos of him or other inmates but could take as many photos as we liked of the museum. Then he asked us to sit on the benches. We sat on the one next to the wall and he sat in front of us on the one similar to the church benches.
I am fairly tall but I noticed that my feet were not touching the ground. It was later after his explanation that I realised the benches with the higher-end angled seats were for convicts to keep their feet above the ground. It made it challenging for them to escape and the one he sat on were for officers to keep their eyes on them. When I mentioned convicts’ crimes, he smiled and said” Some were convicted for cutting trees and then coming here the first thing they were told to do was cutting trees! “
There was a beautiful painting of a typical Australian nature scene on the wall. He pointed it out and said:” An inmate has painted it.” I thought to myself he must’ve been dreaming of freedom whilst painting it!
He showed us the crime graph for the last couple of years in NSW and mentioned how it has never stopped growing!
We eventually entered the building, the atmosphere was depressing. The very first room had glass displays full of instruments and documents related to the convicts. In one display were two different leather lashes. One had wider stripes for children as young as 11 years old and another one with narrow stripes for older convicts. There was even an executioner job application on which was a recommendation note saying:” this guy can hang anyone!”
“An application for a dead-end job”, he joked.
There were photos of infamous criminals and famous prison establishments all over the walls. He enthusiastically explained all about the infamous escapes of prisoners in detail. He showed us original tools which were used by prisoners while constantly mentioning that he and the other inmates running the museum haven’t committed any serious crimes otherwise they wouldn’t have been given these positions. Our tour guide was extremely nice and polite but I felt uneasy being in such an environment so his explanation was kind of comforting!
One room was only dedicated to all the handmade illegal tools made by prisoners, stuff that I had only seen in movies. At the corner of a corridor was a cell, the exact replica of the psychic cell in the Green Miles movie. It was very creepy but educational at the same time. And at the very end of a long room was a replica of a modern cell and all tools and even sample foods for modern prisoners. I couldn’t dare to enter any of them. I had the feeling of a prisoner who wanted to escape.
We eventually entered the gift shop full of inmate handmade crafts for sale before going outside to see a real gallows and have a chance to play the role of an executioner. A wishing well with a red heart on the front made of recycled materials took my daughter’s eyes. I didn’t need anything but I felt a sort of need to pay my debt of gratitude to the community and contribute to any cause that might help him and other inmates to stay motivated and away from any criminal activities. It might seem naive to some people but at that moment it seemed to me that buying something from that shop might implant a seed of hope!
I asked him which one he had made, he showed me wishing wells and wooden crosses. I picked the well which was made obviously for female customers with a red heart on the front and said:” my daughter loves this”. He thanked us a couple of times. I don’t remember that I have ever been thanked in a shop for shopping in Australia as much as I was by him in that small gift shop. I offered money to him but he said:” we can’t accept money.” So we proceed to checkout to pay the only officer we could see around. The officer smiled, He nodded at our guide and said:” He has made it.”.
I said:” I know. I am buying it because he has been a great tour guide .”.
Officer laughed, blinked and said:” Has he been? I don’t think so.” Then he passed the small well to him and said: “fix your well.”.
The man looked at it curiously to find the fault while playing with the small bucket made of toothpaste cap.
I smiled and said: ” He is kidding.” Then I took my wishing well and exit the building to see the last part of the museum…the gallows!
At The Gallows
I noticed that we had a new tour guide. Another inmate much shorter with black hair and mustache. He was asking if anyone is interested to be an executioner when we joined visitors outside. No one seemed to be interested in having such position. Eventually a middle age woman volunteered . I really didn’t have any intention to experience it. I was standing next to the officer and listening to story of a man who was hanging a couple of times to be completely dead. It was so shocking and I couldn’t hear more. I looked at the surprised face of a 7-8 years old boy sitting next to his mum. I said to the officer:” this is horrible, look at this shocked kid!”.
Her mum said proudly:” He is okay, he wanted to jump on there a min ago.”.
I don’t know why at that moment I suddenly remembered all scenes on the movies and documentries showing people’s thirst to watch an execusion!
Officer’s voice brought me back to reality. ” it could be a clean and unpainful death if done properly but usually it is done incorrectly and causes the neck to break in several points and become a painful death.” He said while pointing to his own neck to show us which parts the injuries occur. I wasn’t listening anymore. I only heard myself saying,” Then maybe it was best to require a job application for an executioner!”.
We were leaving the museum with our wishing well when I saw our original tour guide came out of the building with a red mug full of milk, standing on the porch, waving hand and saying goodbye and I was wondering what was his wishes when he was making the wishing well!
Read Wishing Well short story by Zahra Pedram Jafari in Farsi