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Authors: Alastair Sarre

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Prohibited Zone

Wakefield Press


Alastair Sarre was born in Leigh Creek, a coal-mining town in the outback of South Australia. He studied forestry at Australian National University and worked for a mining company for a couple of years before returning to Canberra to complete a writing diploma. He has worked as a science editor and freelance writer specialising in forestry and spent time in Japan before moving with his family to the Adelaide Hills.
Prohibited Zone
, his first novel, was shortlisted for the Adelaide Festival Award for Best Unpublished Manuscript.



Wakefield Press
1 The Parade West
Kent Town
South Australia 5067

First published 2011
This edition published 2011

Copyright Alastair Sarre, 2011

All rights reserved. This book is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced without written permission. Enquiries should be addressed to the publisher.

Cover designed by Marc Martin, Small & Quiet

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

Sarre, Alastair, 1963– .
Prohibited zone / Alastair Sarre.
978 1 86254 963 0 (epub).
Dewey Number:




































as hard as old bones and I had the road and the world and the whole damned universe to myself. The way it had always been, and always would be. The sun had slipped below the knife-edge of the horizon, leaving behind faded pink and dirty orange. The plain couldn't have been more plain. It stretched in all directions, treeless and childless and motherless and loveless, like it had been yesterday and the day before and for a million years before that. It was strewn with iron-red pebbles called gibbers, hard and misshapen like spent bullets or burnt-out dreams.

A spattering of streetlights showed against the darkening horizon as I approached Woomera. A military line of eucalypts was silhouetted against the dying pink of the west. Just outside town two police Land Cruisers were parked on either side of the road, far enough apart for a car to pass between them. Their red and blue lights were flashing with self-importance. Three cops in reflective vests and short-sleeved shirts were standing on the road armed with torches. They watched me approach.

Two of them were wearing caps and one wasn't. The capless one was leaning against one of the Land Cruisers but he stepped forward as I neared and signalled for me to stop by waving his illuminated torch up and down. He hitched his trousers and went to touch his cap, standard police procedure to remind everyone that he was wearing a gun and that he was a cop. Then he realised he wasn't wearing a cap . . . but at least he still had his trousers. I recognised his beer gut in the headlights, the only permanent cop in Woomera, Ian Dickson. I drew up alongside him and lowered my window.

‘G'day, Dicko.'

He shone his torch in my eyes. ‘I know this guy,' he called out. ‘Dangerous bastard. Think we orta work him over?' He turned to look at his fellow officers, grinning; they glanced at each other and didn't laugh.

‘Just follow the procedure, officer,' one of them said.

Dicko returned his gaze and his torchlight to me. He lowered his voice. ‘I'd like to give
a procedure one of these days.' There was alcohol and tobacco on his breath. He had been stationed in Woomera for nearly ten years but he still dreamt of the day he'd get back to Adelaide. His wife was already living the dream, having left him three years ago to shack up with another cop down in the big smoke.

‘Jeez, you're looking rough, Westie,' he said. ‘Hard day in the mine shaft?'

‘Yeah, I've been thoroughly shafted,' I said. ‘Can you get that thing out of my eyes?'

‘Oh, yeah. Sure.' He switched off the torch and his drooping face started to materialise as my eyes adjusted. It had probably been a handsome face once, but not anymore; it had lived through too many brawls and too many hangovers and too much disappointment. He had a bald spot at the back of his head that he either didn't know about or didn't care about because he didn't try to cover it up. Come to think of it, he must have known about it; his lovely wife would have told him – often.

‘So what's up? A breath test?'

‘Eh? Ah, nah, we're not breathalysing. Just as well, I'd probably be over o-five myself, just quietly.'

He laughed. It sounded a bit like a wood rasp on a sheet of corrugated iron.

‘You shouldn't say things like that, Dicko, even to a mate. Not even quietly. So what's going on? Why the big show of force?'

Dicko looked again at his fellow officers, but they'd wandered away and were waving down a car heading towards them out of Woomera.

‘There's been a bit of a blue on at the centre,' he said. ‘A few of the residents have climbed over the fence and buggered off.'

He was talking about Woomera Detention Centre, located a few kilometres north of town. In recent years, thousands of illegal immigrants, mostly from Afghanistan and Iraq, had been arriving on decrepit boats claiming asylum, and the government was obliged by international law to consider their cases. If the immigrants could prove they would be shot, tortured or otherwise given a hard time if they went back to their own countries, we'd let them stay. Maybe. In the meantime we didn't want them running around loose, so the government had set up detention centres in remote and unpleasant parts of the country.

Such as Woomera.

Woomera Detention Centre had been built in a hurry in 1999 and now, more than three years later, it was still going strong. It was run by Corrections Australia, a private company that had happily discovered that a profit could be turned by depriving people of their liberty. It worked for the politicians, too, because they found that it won votes.

But not everyone was happy. Protesters from the cities had started camping outside the centre, holding hands and demanding that it be shut down. A couple of weeks ago I had been curious enough to drive out there. The facility covered about fifteen hectares of saltbush plain, enclosed behind a five-metre-high perimeter fence made of steel palisades topped with razor wire. There was another palisade fence a few metres inside, and interior chain-mesh fences that divided the compound into sections. Rows and rows of shabby dorms were watched over by dozens of light towers. It had been a stinking hot day but a few people were prowling about, listless and restless. A small group of men was playing soccer in the dirt, watched by a couple of guards. Several women were congregating in a covered area containing kids' play equipment. One kid was hanging upside down on the monkey bar. There were no trees or greenery, only the dull blue of the saltbush, the dull pink of the dirt and the dull shimmer of the steel fence. And the dull anger of the people.

‘You know that peaceful protest outside the centre?' Dicko was asking. ‘Well, it kind of turned non-peaceful. The Rent-a-Wanker protesters started pushin' at the fence from the outside and prisin' pickets apart and throwin' blankets over the razor wire, and a bunch of the residents started riotin' and every bugger tried to leg it. We're tryin' to round 'em all up before they get lost and die of fucken thirst. You're not harbourin' any fugitives from justice in the back, are you, Westie?'

‘Not that I know of.'

He thumped his torch a couple of times on the roof of my Ford utility.

‘I'd better take a look-see, anyway, eh? Me brethren in the Australian Protective Service over there seem to expect it.' He nodded in the direction of the other cops, one of whom glanced towards us. The approaching car had dimmed its lights and was slowing down.

‘Sure, Dicko, you're the law, do whatever you want. But go easy on my roof, will you?'

He laughed, then turned his torch back on and started flashing it around. He took a quick look through the window at the interior cargo area and wandered to the back of the ute where he undid the tray cover. He shone his torch inside, did the cover back up and returned to my window.

‘Takin' a break?' He must've noticed the overnight bag and swag; I was mildly surprised that he had.

‘Yeah, I feel the need for a bit of rest and recreation down in Adelaide.'

‘Well, give her my love.'

‘I'd rather give her mine.'

Dicko sniggered.

‘So, did you see any action today?' I asked.

‘Not really. Mostly it was the APS boys and the private goons – you know, Corrections Austraya – with their water cannon. Inflicted a bit of damage. Knockin' the rezzies over like they were fucken tenpin bowlin'. Then they used it on the dorms 'cos a few of 'em got torched. I'm tellin' ya, it was mayhem.'

‘But you didn't get to hit anyone, eh?'

‘Nah, worst luck. I feel like whackin' those fucken feds, though, just quietly.' He nodded again in the direction of his colleagues. ‘Got their badges firmly wedged up their arses.' He laughed. We both laughed. The two feds had finished inspecting the second car, a Pajero, and were waving it on with their torches. It couldn't move because I was blocking its path. Dicko thumped the roof again.

‘Alright, Westie, bugger off to Adelaide. We won't miss ya. Got yerself a roadie?'

‘Thought I might stop off at Spuds.'

‘Yeah, maybe I'll join you later. Could be a bit lively there tonight. Anyway, if you see any stray Afghans in search of a camel, give me a call. Here's me number.'

He handed me a piece of paper and shone his torch on it so I could read it. ‘Sergeant Ian Dickson, SA Police, Woomera.' It gave a mobile phone number.

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