November 2018

The Courts

How you are when you leave

By Helen Garner
This must be how it feels to retire

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 high-school 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, weather-beaten, 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.

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.

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is is a novelist and nonfiction writer. Her most recent books are Stories and True Stories, and her diaries Yellow NotebookOne Day I’ll Remember This and the upcoming How To End a Story.

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