THE courTs

The Monthly (Australia) - - FRONT PAGE - by He­len Garner

It’s a win­ter Mon­day morn­ing and the air in the foyer of Broad­mead­ows Mag­is­trates’ Court is thick with psy­chic com­mo­tion. Young men pace and strut, jaws clenched, necks stiff: they can hardly bear be­ing looked at. Old women sit with feet neatly to­gether, grip­ping their bags in both hands. The PA sys­tem calls out names and num­bers. A hun­dred con­ver­sa­tions criss­cross: “School hol­i­days – only two courts run­ning.” “Has she got brown hair?” “And I was like, I was like, ‘You called the po­lice? Why?’” In­side court num­ber 1 it’s qui­eter. You can breathe. “Do you have a mat­ter in court to­day?” the en­er­getic young clerk asks me. “Or sup­port­ing some­one? No?” Away she strides to her desk be­low the bench. Her eyes, like a good teacher’s, are con­stantly scan­ning the ter­ri­tory she com­mands. All at once a young man’s face looms over us on a high screen, the video link from prison. It’s not a clever face. It’s heavy, smooth, and end­lessly pas­sive. “You plan to go to Turkey?” the so­lic­i­tor calls to him from the bar table. “Get outta town?” Ev­ery­one stands for the mag­is­trate, a thin, white­haired man with hol­low cheeks and a re­strained man­ner. Be­fore he’s even set­tled in his chair the first foun­tain of trou­ble gushes from the stack of doc­u­ments in front of the cheer­ful po­lice pros­e­cu­tor. It ap­pears that when the morose man on the screen was ar­rested he was not only rid­ing a Yamaha with stolen plates but also wear­ing a Tiffany di­a­mond ban­gle later traced to a bur­glary in the east­ern suburbs, a job that had also net­ted a lap­top, di­a­mond ear­rings, a di­a­mond pen­dant and a Longines watch. He dully rubs sleep out of one eye as the list of items found in his pos­ses­sion goes on and on: a stolen credit card, two vials of GHB, an ice pipe, a gun-clean­ing cloth, a blow­torch … The story is that he sus­tained metatarsal dam­age in his work and that’s how he got into drugs. He’s de­fied pre­vi­ous com­mu­nity cor­rec­tion or­ders and ev­ery­one’s sick of him, ex­cept, it seems, his wife, who is sit­ting in front of me, alert and stylishly coiffed. “And he had a gun,” says the mag­is­trate thought­fully. He dan­gles in front of the man two ad­van­tages of re­main­ing in Aus­tralia: our jails are bet­ter, and in Turkey he would be in line for the dreaded mil­i­tary ser­vice. The big dumb face reg­is­ters no emo­tion. The mag­is­trate drops into gear. “Well, it’s all caught up with you to­day. I hear you’re go­ing to change your life. You ought to. You’ve got a lovely wife here, and two chil­dren, and what do you do? You thumb your nose at them. You know what goes on in this town. Too many shoot­ings. Got to be gen­eral de­ter­rence.” He gives the man nine months, and says to the wife, “Wanna speak to him?” She tilts her face to the high screen and says in a choked voice, “Love you.” His re­ply, a low sound, es­capes me. The next comer has the same name as a fa­mous foot­baller. Ev­ery head in the room snaps around to the screen. Nah, it’s not him. It’s a long-term junkie, a haunted fel­low of 40 whose only ex­pres­sion is an oc­ca­sional crimp­ing of the fore­head. He doesn’t look very ag­gres­sive, but at some stage he got 12 months for a car­jack­ing. He was adopted at the age of two months, never met his par­ents, his older brother stuck a nee­dle in his arm when he was 14, he was home­less for a while, and has been on methadone for years. He’s got three kids. With his girl­friend, who had been wear­ing a wide-brimmed hat to shield her from the CCTV, he was sprung steal­ing tins of baby for­mula from Coles. Aaaah, I think, these poor peo­ple, they can’t even af­ford to feed their baby. But whole wheelie suit­cases full of the stuff? The penny drops: I re­mem­ber the junkies in the ’70s, how they’d get sick and rage hy­per­bol­i­cally that their hit had been “cut with Ajax”. When the mag­is­trate sen­tences him, the man doesn’t speak or even look up. The screen dies, and the mag­is­trate says to the so­lic­i­tor, “You didn’t have much to work with there.” A woman with a tod­dler wrig­gling and chat­ter­ing on her lap weeps as she tries to per­suade the mag­is­trate to free her from a fine she can’t af­ford to pay. He gives her ex­tra time. A dain­tily dressed lit­tle lady wants to dis­pute her ticket for hav­ing parked partly across her neigh­bour’s drive­way. “Can I plead guilty, Your Hon­our,” she pipes in a school­girl’s voice, “but with mit­i­gat­ing cir­cum­stances?” She’s like Tinker Bell flit­ter­ing over a murky swamp. For a sec­ond, ev­ery­one pauses. “Of course,” says the mag­is­trate. She launches into her ex­pla­na­tion, but it’s long­winded and ram­bling. She knows she’s los­ing it, and fades out: “Can my hus­band ex­plain?” He gets to his feet and lays down three la­conic sen­tences that reveal the ab­sur­dity of the thing. Case dis­missed. The first mat­ter af­ter lunch con­cerns a cer­tain Ms O, who swims into view on video link from Dame Phyl­lis Frost women’s prison. She’s a plump young woman with long, thick dark hair. When she takes off her prison jumper she dis­plays an enor­mous cur­sive tat­too flow­ing down her left arm from el­bow to wrist. Her dis­con­so­late mouth widens into a smile when she spots her nose-ringed sis­ter seated be­hind the lawyers with a big hunk of a bloke in tow – Ms O’s hus­band. The sis­ters ex­change furtive glances, and now and then burst into noise­less fits of gig­gling. Ms O has been in cus­tody for 315 days. She is up on hun­dreds and hun­dreds of charges. A num­ber of them have breached sus­pended sen­tences; many in­volve deal­ing with the pro­ceeds of crime. The pros­e­cu­tor mur­murs

to the clerk, “Like she goes into a restau­rant, has $900 worth of food, and then …” The mag­is­trate sighs and says in a faint voice, “I’ve read all the sum­maries. Boy.” High on the screen Ms O low­ers her brow and thrusts out her bot­tom lip. Sud­denly she looks – well, I wouldn’t let her rack up a $900 tab in my restau­rant. The stuff they found in her pos­ses­sion! One gun safe. One laser hair-re­moval ma­chine. Two PURI eBike scoot­ers. One Merida road bike. One Ap­ple desk­top com­puter and an iPad. Six thou­sand dol­lars worth of jew­ellery. She was us­ing a gram of metham­phetamine a day, as well as sup­ply­ing other peo­ple’s habits. A messy child­hood, a sex­ual as­sault at 13. Her mother went over­seas and left her alone, then mar­ried a man the daugh­ter couldn’t get along with. She did a beauty course but never used it. She couch surfed for four or five years. Ms O lis­tens to the his­tory of her “fraud­u­lent trans­ac­tions” with­out vis­i­ble in­ter­est. She has the huge pa­tience of the in­car­cer­ated, the abil­ity to sit still for long, long stretches, mo­tion­less ex­cept for an oc­ca­sional flex­ing of the hands. “She’s got more front than … many peo­ple I’ve come across,” says the phleg­matic mag­is­trate. “She hasn’t worked hon­estly for years, has she?” The so­lic­i­tor re­cites his mantra: she’s been clean for seven months, she’s at­tend­ing AA and NA meet­ings, and she’s re­morse­ful. “They’re all re­morse­ful,” says the mag­is­trate ir­ri­ta­bly, “when they get caught.” He says he will sen­tence her in three days. Some­times court is hard to bear. The day is nowhere near over but I sneak out into the iron wind that streams down from the north. I used to teach high school out this way, in the 1960s. Back then it was wide grass­lands, and pad­docks, and car fac­to­ries, and kids on bikes. These days a vast fu­tur­is­tic con­crete walk­way strad­dles the road between the court and the train sta­tion. Trucks roar past. The steel grey clouds hang low. On Thurs­day I’m early. The build­ing is locked. There’s no shel­ter and the wind is ter­ri­ble. A young man with a pale scar between his eye­brows leans to­wards me on the cold bench and starts pour­ing out a painful story. I warn him that I’m a jour­nal­ist. He doesn’t care. All he wants is ac­cess to his four-year-old son. He’s never had ac­cess. They split up while she was preg­nant. She tried to claim that he wasn’t the fa­ther. DNA dis­proved this and he’s still fight­ing. When he turns away to look for his lawyer I no­tice that his left trouser leg is snagged in his sock. I re­sist an urge to crouch down and flick it free. “This is the day of reck­on­ing,” says the mag­is­trate to the freshly made-up Ms O on the screen. “What are your plans for the fu­ture?” “Gonna be a bet­ter per­son,” she mum­bles, eyes down. “Gonna drop drugs.” He gives her 15 months, con­cur­rent, so she has a chance to get out by Christ­mas next year. “A 464 swab is to be taken from your mouth. If you refuse, it can be done by force.” Her face loosens, as if she’s about to cry. “Want to say good­bye to your hus­band and your sis­ter?” They gaze up at her. Very slowly she raises her head. She tries to smile. She waves one hand, and is gone. As I cross the lobby I pass a solemn Mid­dle East­ern man in thread­bare clothes that have been dis­creetly and el­e­gantly patched. He spreads a sheet of pa­per on the chair be­side him, un­folds his wool jacket across his lap, and with large side­ways sweeps of his flat palms be­gins to brush the fluff off it and onto the pa­per. He works for a good 15 min­utes, re­ar­rang­ing the jacket to ex­pose each sur­face, never paus­ing or los­ing his rhythm. I stand hyp­no­tised by the turns and tilts of his head, the metic­u­lous pin­cer move­ments of his fin­ger­tips along the cuffs. I keep wait­ing for him to look up with a face-sav­ing shrug, but he’s way beyond irony or self-dep­re­ca­tion. His som­bre de­vo­tion to the task re­lieves some­thing in me: I can’t say what. He puts on the jacket and straight­ens his shoul­ders. At last he deems him­self pre­sentable. He gath­ers up the fluff and the pa­per, drops them into a bin, and walks with dig­nity to­wards his next or­deal.

“What are your plans for the fu­ture?” “Gonna be a bet­ter per­son,” she mum­bles, eyes down.

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