THE courTs

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by He­len Garner

In Septem­ber a read­ing group at Tar­ren­gower women’s prison chose one of my books to dis­cuss, and in­vited me along to the meet­ing. Till then the only prison I’d ever been in­side was the grim blue­stone fortress of Pen­tridge in Coburg, 40 years ago. Min­i­mum-se­cu­rity Tar­ren­gower, in the cen­tral Vic­to­rian coun­try­side near Mal­don, is a very dif­fer­ent story, set low in a rolling grassy land­scape un­der a big sky, with stands of eu­ca­lypts that flut­tered and winked in the sun­light of a spring af­ter­noon.

A dozen women in track­ies and long-sleeved white T-shirts were wait­ing for me and the Mel­bourne high­school English teacher who runs the group. They were re­laxed and open-faced, ea­ger to talk, ready with thoughts and per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences to share. We con­fessed to and tried to an­a­lyse the fa­tigue and de­spair that can tor­ment a wo­man who is duty-bound to care for some­one whose suf­fer­ing she is help­less to re­lieve. Our con­ver­sa­tion could have run on and on, but in an hour and a bit the guards came to count the read­ers, and took them away to play bingo. At part­ing I asked one of the older ones if she was go­ing to play.

“Nuh,” she said with a shrug. “I’m in Gam­blers Anony­mous.”

“Is bingo gam­bling?” I said naively.

“Yep. Any game of chance.”

The teacher had brought along for the ride a li­brar­ian friend who had pre­vi­ously worked with her in what they called “ju­vie”. “That was fun,” I said, as the three of us hopped into the car to drive back to Mel­bourne. “They weren’t my idea of pris­on­ers.” The teacher turned to me and said with great ve­he­mence, “They’re us. They. Are. Us.”

On the road to the free­way a pale brown roo leapt out in front of the car. The teacher braked like a pro and missed it: we didn’t even scream. All the way home we talked with grow­ing in­ti­macy, as strangers can in a dark car, about fam­i­lies and work, what made us laugh and what we feared, and, in in­tense de­tail, about car­ing for our par­ents at the end of their lives. The li­brar­ian, who came from Stawell, spoke about the long, weary drives she had had to do at all hours when her mother, whom she dearly loved, was dying. “Do you re­mem­ber,” she said, “how you are when you leave?”

They asked me if I was still writ­ing about courts. I said I’d like to stop, that I’d had enough, my hear­ing was pack­ing up and I was too old to take the sad­ness any­more, but that I had a dead­line in 10 days and the cup­board was bare. The teacher cut across me. “There’s a com­mit­tal hear­ing in Bal­larat next Thurs­day,” she said. “You should go. It’s the wo­man who crashed into the boot-scoot­ing grand­moth­ers last May, up at Navarre.”

We did re­mem­ber it, though we had tried not to. As we flew down the free­way to­wards the city we pieced to­gether what few de­tails we had heard. Four older women mo­tor­ing home at dusk from a day of line-danc­ing at St Ar­naud were col­lected in their small Kia at a cross­roads by a wo­man driv­ing alone in a Jeep. All four dancers died at that in­ter­sec­tion. We couldn’t for­get what one of the po­lice­men had said: that the driver was hold­ing the hand of her front-seat pas­sen­ger as she passed; that the four women had died of in­ter­nal in­juries, and looked as if they were asleep.

The train to Bal­larat left be­fore dawn. I stepped out of my front gate and heard mag­pies war­bling in the dark. The air was sharp with pit­tospo­rum blos­som, and the sta­tion plat­form at Footscray swarmed with burly tradies and young guys in bean­ies wheel­ing push­bikes. Surely there was still a place for me in the world of work. Maybe I could face it one more time – the spec­ta­cle of the law try­ing to get its rea­son­ing grip on a hu­man calamity so dread­ful that the rest of us can only stand gap­ing.

The Mag­is­trates’ Court in the hand­some old town is big and new and glassy, the sort of build­ing out­side which you look an id­iot be­cause you can’t find the door. A scowl­ing se­cu­rity guard ran his wand over me. I found the wo­man’s name on the list, and sat down with the usual bunch of scrubbed-up un­for­tu­nates to wait for court two to open.

The bloke be­side me with the manila folder on his knee was a de­tec­tive from Footscray wait­ing to give ev­i­dence in an­other mat­ter. Pleas­antly we passed the time. I con­fided my ridicu­lous re­gret that I didn’t join the po­lice force in 1972 when I got the sack from teach­ing. He laughed, and said he was glad there were so many women in the force these days: “Fe­males are much bet­ter than males at talk­ing to peo­ple.” He said he’d learnt to keep a wall be­tween his work and his fam­ily life. He didn’t know why he was good at main­tain­ing this wall, but so far it was pretty im­per­vi­ous. He told me he’d been very sur­prised, in train­ing, to learn how easy it is to be killed in a crash – how frag­ile a car is when it’s rammed side-on, and not even at high speed. “You’re sitting next to this thin panel,” he said, “the other car hits you, and you’re dead.”

The court opened. It was small, only three rows of seats. I sat near the back. The young fe­male lawyers all had the drowned maiden look that women of all ages adopt these days, long hair cas­cad­ing loose over the shoul­ders no mat­ter what the hour or the for­mal­ity of the oc­ca­sion. One, in an ill-cut black pants suit, was sport­ing a brand-new pair of the most grotesque shiny stilet­tos. Her heels were so high that she had to walk

jack-knifed for­ward, and could hardly find a po­si­tion in which to place her feet, even when she was seated.

I was busily dis­ap­prov­ing of all this when the door opened be­hind me and Lor­raine Ni­chol­son, the wo­man whose com­mit­tal hear­ing I had come for, qui­etly passed me with her three com­pan­ions and took a seat in the front row. She was a pretty wo­man in her mid 60s, with bright white hair well cut. She wore glasses, pearls and teardrop ear­rings, and a spot­ted top in a pink­ish colour that suited her. On her left sat a fit-look­ing, weath­er­beaten, grey­ing man in a blue jumper, and on her right a large young wo­man in black, with her hair up in a lit­tle top­knot, who was hold­ing on her lap a baby about three months old.

I sup­posed that this must be how it feels to re­tire.

My next-door neigh­bour had re­marked, af­ter see­ing Ni­chol­son’s photo in the pa­per, that she “looked … re­fined”. I thought of this a mo­ment later when a dozen peo­ple came forg­ing into the court in a body, and filled the two rows of seats be­hind the Ni­chol­sons. No greet­ings or eye con­tact passed be­tween the two groups, nor was there any ex­pres­sion of hos­til­ity, yet it was clear they were there with a shared con­cern. If this had been a wed­ding, they would have been sitting on op­po­site sides of the aisle.

The baby stirred on the lap of the young wo­man in black and ut­tered a small sound of dis­con­tent. A dummy was ad­min­is­tered. Mrs Ni­chol­son leaned for­ward and mur­mured to the child. Was it a mis­take to bring the baby? The dead women too were grand­moth­ers.

The mag­is­trate rushed in, harassed and stooped. Ni­chol­son’s lawyer sprang to his feet and the mag­is­trate be­gan to speak. Oh no. He was a low talker. I hit the but­ton on my hear­ing aid and ev­ery­thing went echoey and bath­roomy. Pa­per crack­led like kin­dling. Ph­legm rat­tled in a chest. The mag­is­trate clat­tered shrilly on his key­board. A cop tucked in his shirt tail and I was deaf­ened by cloth against leather. By the time I got the vol­ume un­der con­trol it was over. It hadn’t even been a com­mit­tal: it was only a men­tion. All I grasped was the new date: Jan­uary 18 next year. They were giv­ing her driver’s li­cence back but keep­ing her pass­port. The Ni­chol­sons and then the group be­hind them got up and poured past me to the door, their faces set, or shy, or care­fully im­pas­sive.

The court’s busi­ness rack­eted on around me and I sat there stunned for half an hour, lis­ten­ing and watch­ing and tak­ing notes be­cause I didn’t know what else to do. To think I’d got up at 4am and come all this way to watch some ran­dom thug on vide­olink scratch him­self and in­spect his nails. Bur­glary, I wrote. A green ute. He runs away, he jumps fences, he goes through Mrs Ogilvie’s gar­den, he says he did not push her out of the way. If a knuck­le­duster was in­volved it would be a sig­nif­i­cant ag­gra­vat­ing fac­tor.

I thought I would go out and get my­self a pie. As I passed se­cu­rity the big brute who’d wanded me on the way in gave me such a gen­tle smile that I nearly burst into tears. In the street I made an­other se­ri­ous blun­der. I didn’t go to a 7-Eleven for my pie. I went to a fancy bak­ery. It was the most aw­ful pie I had ever eaten. I left the wreck­age on my plate and walked very slowly back to the sta­tion. I sup­posed that this must be how it feels to re­tire.

So I haven’t got any­thing more to say about Mrs Ni­chol­son, or about what hap­pened that evening at the in­ter­sec­tion. But I saw her. I saw her closed, in­ward face, her low­ered gaze, and three of the peo­ple who love her, and the silent cit­i­zens be­hind her, all of them awe­some in their self-com­mand and dig­nity. And though I came home empty-handed, I didn’t want to waste the friendly pris­on­ers, or the mag­pies war­bling be­fore dawn, or the train that raced across the land while the ris­ing sun shot its beams into the quiet car­riage and melted the frost off the pad­docks as we passed – or that other thing, the sweet­ness of strangers who con­gre­gate in pub­lic places where wait­ing is done.

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