Seen from any angle, the Coffin is one seriously ugly pile of stones. A grim, dusty box squatting at the outer edge of a thousand acres of dirt-blown semi-industrial scrub three hours west of Sydney, it’s a Darwin oven in summer and a Canberra fridge in winter.
The Coffin is a hundred years old and, my brother Solo keeps telling me – no contest, bro – the toughest jail in Australia. Although exactly how Solo would know is a mystery, since the big blowhard’s never been within an hour of the place.
The official name is the New South Wales Deep Cut Correctional Centre, but just about everyone calls it the Coffin because, they say, once you go in you stay in. It’s a maximum security facility holding the worst criminals in the country – terrorists, armed robbers, gangsters, cold-eyed killers – people too flat out dangerous to keep anywhere else.
It was built for one reason and only one reason: to keep the wolves away from the sheep.
It’s where my dad lives.
‘Looks different, eh, Raze?’ ‘What?’
‘The surface of freakin’ Mars, what else? Jeez-us. No, the city, you dipstick. The city. This time of night, man. Looks way different.’
Spray can in hand, I turn away from the wall to give Ids a serve right back, but as soon as I see he’s sitting right on the edge of the mall roof, my words dry up. Ids’ long legs dizzy-dangle in space over the concourse below. We’re only three floors up but you’d still do a good impression of a dropped pizza if you hit the concrete from here.
Truth is I don’t like heights all that much (okay, I pretty much hate ’em), so Ids sitting there all casual right on the edge makes my guts churn and I feel for sure that any second now he’s just gonna, y’know, drop. Blammo. Whomp. That’s it. The End.
But I don’t let any of that show.
Not to Ids McLafferty, anyway, who never seems fazed by anything.
Ids is a long, lean East African kid with a sly sense of humour. Whenever I come out with anything too wussy, he’ll just give me that dead-eye look, like he’s some sort of, y’know, Somali warlord or something, instead of what he is: the chess-playing adopted son of a couple of Eastern Suburbs accountants. But I don’t want to look soft so I put down the spray can and sit next to him, fighting the urge to be sick. I glance back at Candy, who nods her head encouragingly. Sit, you’ll be fine, her gesture says. So I sit.
Candy knows I don’t like heights. Don’t ask me how: I never told her about it or nothing . . . she just knows. There’s lots of things she knows without me saying a word.
Ids waves a hand at the skyline. ‘Quiet.’
I open my mouth to say something smart but stop myself. Ids is right. It’s four in the morning and the first light is starting to show back over towards the coast. The city is real peaceful.
More than peaceful, maybe. The whole place is silent. Not a car moving, no sirens, nothing.
For a few wonderful seconds I forget about my dad and what I need to tell him next time I see him.
Candy sits next to me and puts a reassuring hand on my back and, just like that, I feel heaps safer. The roof is solid. The conversation with Dad can wait. I’ve got almost a week before the next visit and this thing has been in my head for months. Another week won’t hurt. Our latest artwork is almost finished. It’s taken us all night and it’s one of our best. We’ve painted a long ragged tear in the wall with green liquid coming out, like the building’s bleeding. Ids did the highlights on the liquid and made it really pop. Looks good, y’know? Professional.
With our backs to the art we sit for a long minute, drinking in the quiet.
We’re MCT. Our initials: McLafferty, Cooper, Tanic. We’ve been painting as a crew for a few years, starting out as nothing but ‘toys’ – beginners – but now MCT is all-city. We’re everywhere. It might not seem like much to anyone in the straight world but it’s something. We’re something. We’ve got a mile to go before we’d be known or suchlike, but we’re deffo up, bro, we’re doing it. MCT never hit the same spot and never do go-overs – you got to have respect, right? We know it’s against the law, blah blah blah, but what we do isn’t just scrawl. I saw online they’re doing Street Art tours down in Melbourne. Taking paying customers to see the work. You can’t tell me that –
We look down and see two rent-a-cops pointing at us from down in the mall. If we’d been painting, they wouldn’t have seen us, but there we are, out in plain sight, and we’ve been busted.
The guards run towards the stairwell door and we scuttle off the ledge like startled cockroaches, Ids and I scrabbling for our paint gear.
‘Leave it!’ says Candy. ‘No time! Just grab the sketchbooks!’
She stuffs a couple of things into her backpack and slings the straps over her shoulders in one smooth movement before sprinting for the fire ladder that leads down onto the car park roof next door.
‘C’mon!’ she shouts over her shoulder. ‘What are you waiting for?’
Ids laughs. ‘Christmas!’
Heavy boots boom up the stairwell. Yelling, radio static, authority.
‘Go! Go! Go!’ I shout, pushing Ids ahead of me and we stumble after Candy towards the ladder.
The door on the other side of our roof bangs open just as Ids waves a cheeky bye-bye and clatters out of sight. I drop in behind him, can hear the crunch of cop boots getting closer.
‘C’mon! ’ shouts Ids, and I slip-slide down the ladder and land on top of him before we hit the grit and sprint hard for the corner. There’s a big metal sign – BARGAINS GALORE! – wedged between the car park roof and the building next door. It’ll be a major balancing act to get across the top of the sign – three metres by just thirty centimetres of wobbling metal – but Candy’s already over and Ids yells ‘Possum Magic, bro!’ and then he’s dancing across all quick and agile and somehow looking exactly like a freakin’ possum and a crazy snort-laugh thing blurts out of my nose and I try not to think about THE DROP below, adrenaline rushing through me like fire through a forest – do it! do it! do it! – and then I’m across before I know it – oh thank you, Jesus! – and the guards behind are just too old and slow and low paid to try. With real cops we’d have thought twice. Cops’ve got guns and tasers, but these security guys don’t have jack.
We clatter down the fire stairs and into the alley then we’re out on Sydney’s streets, breaking the dawn silence into a million pieces as we rat-run east towards home, laughing and gasping and shouting. I’m happy. Alive. Myself.
For those few moments I can almost forget I’m a Tanic.
Find The Tell at your local bookstore.