September 2018

The Courts

by Helen Garner

Courtroom drama, Broadmeadows style

The hopeful and the hapless flow through a magistrates’ court

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, white-haired 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.

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist. Her books include Monkey Grip, The Children’s BachThe Spare Room and This House of Grief.

September 2018

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