Originally published in Voiceworks #100, 2015. Republished here with permission.
I have to ask where the toilets are. A woman – it seems right in my head to call her an orderly – shows me the way to the men’s. She looks like a perfect schoolgirl in her red collared top and charcoal blazer. Her name tag says MEAGHAN HENDERSON. I wonder if she’s one of these girls who pronounce it Megg’n.
It’s ten o’clock. Starting time. That much is the same as the Children’s Court, and the round clock with big numerals and a red second hand. Here there’s décor: a slab of a fountain, which dribbles and chokes. I think about whether to take the oath or the affirmation. Last census I said I was a Christian, but I’m sure it says somewhere in the Bible not to swear on it.
Someone dumped a load of pamphlets on me at the foyer, but I know the drill. I fold the papers inside each other and push them down in the green bag I brought, where they hopefully won’t spring out with my lunch. I’m not one for bringing books to these places. Once one of the mums told me it was Woolf not Cher on her headphones in the waiting room, and when her boy got three years she went off and did an English degree, so there you go. But I’m more into those women’s magazines, the ones with intros from the editors who mainly talk about health fads and what their kids are up to. You can get old copies at the op shop, six for a dollar, if you don’t mind that the competitions are out of date. With the horoscopes I pick whichever ones look best for me and Rob. Last year I sent an old photo of Rob into the baby pictures page, pretended he was still two-and-a-quarter. Got fifteen dollars for it.
There are four of us here. A book man, an iPad man and me with my old mags; the woman is reading the Supreme Court NSW pamphlet – a first-timer, then. There’s the curiosity of a doctor’s waiting room: what brings you here, the fear that someone else might be worse off than you. Nobody here is worse off than me. The fountain coughs. There are some magazines on the table: fishing, surfing, Better Homes and Gardens. We don’t touch them. It occurs to me that my wife is somewhere in this building, and Rob by now, too. Family reunion.
I fill a plastic cup at the water cooler and pour it into the basin of the fountain. The others look up from their distractions.
“It was making that noise because it wasn’t.” I swallow. “Full enough of water.”
“Looks like a bloody tombstone,” says the man with the book. I see it’s something about Europe.
“Planning a trip?” I ask.
“I was,” he says. “What’s that you’re reading?”
“Some women’s rubbish.”
Book man doesn’t reply.
“I’ve always thought Africa’d be good,” I try again. “A safari or something.”
We witnesses spend a few minutes in halting conversation about all the things we’re planning to see.
“So, you like those shows?” iPad man says. “National Geographic and that? All them animals shagging and eating each other.” He jiggles his iPad up and down in lieu of laughter.
“No,” I say. “I’m not into that.”
I still choke when I think of it. I should have noticed the blood first, running across Rob’s room along the grooves in the fake-wood lino. But when you see that, at home, you just think it’s hot chocolate.
The mouse was stretched on its side at the foot of his chest of drawers. It had that sunken look that small animals get when they’re dead. I was used to that, but with a mouse trap there’s never so much blood. Raelene and I had been trapping mice for weeks. We’d kept it a secret from Rob.
“I’ve been in there since he went to camp and there was no bloody mouse there then!” Raelene yelled. “Is that it, Matthew? His – problems, is that what makes you feel interesting?”
I cleaned up the mouse. Rob’s walls were the same pastel blue we painted them twelve years ago, though now a solid band of posters covered the sailboat border. Three exercise books were piled on the desk, covered in STAR WARS contact with Raelene’s bubble-free librarian precision. The bed was made and I knew there was a teddy bear near at hand. A Lego town occupied one corner of the room, lino lines engaged to mark off streets.
This waiting room looks out onto a neighbouring building, so close I can’t tell which marks are on the window and which on the wall outside. Every year I walk past the Supreme Court, dragging my year eight History classes to Hyde Park Barracks across the road. If I could open this window, I’d hear high-schoolers kicking the pinkish gravel and bemoaning how boring this excursion is, primary kids in rapt attention at the exploits of convicts past. That pig outside the old hospital whose nose you rub for good luck, or good health, I forget which.
I think of when I was twelve-and-a-half, stretching the last few months out of a faded primary school uniform. The pants were short enough to show the scratches on my knees.
“Hey, Matt,” Dylan Campbell said, “come’n check out this bird.”
“What, s’it swooped ya?”
“Nah, it’s fucking dead.”
I followed Dylan round the back of the portable classroom. The myna bird lay with its legs cast under it, like it was reaching for a place to land. Dylan took an empty popper from under the building and pulled out the bendy straw. He poked the bird’s mouth open and tried ramming the straw down like a life support tube. It came out with red on the tip.
“Now you go,” he said, handing the straw to me bloodied end first.
When we were finished, Dylan picked up the empty popper and jabbed the straw back in til it disappeared behind the little foil circle. I threw the popper back under the building. The bell rang. We lined up along the portable’s greyed wood verandah.
I swivel my head to check if the marks are on my glasses. My dad taught me that trick when I got my first pair. The spots move around before my eyes, but they do the same with the glasses off. The man with the book is staring at me. Haloes start around the lights. Lucky I’ve got my new migraine pills in the bag. They make me tired though. I’ll wait til after.
“Mr Weaver?” Meaghan Henderson is back.
I jab the magazine into my bag. The others watch me go. I follow Meaghan’s grey blazer.
Inside the public gallery is packed. Here they can see a criminal (live!) on their lunch break, and how’s that different to reading the paper to unwind? If you watch long enough he’s bound to look back at you. They want it for the Facebook status, to take the feel of his gaze back to their kids in their highchairs and bibs. The reporters get used to it; maybe they’ve got some ritual, a different pair of glasses for court or somewhere they always get a coffee on the way home to their lives.
“Are you able to identify anyone in this footage?”
The long bits on the prosecutor’s collar are white as cloth napkins at the start of a meal. They move less than I expect when he turns his head to the screen. The gallery stirs. There’s a technical issue with the tape. I wonder why these recordings are always so blurry. On the security video, Rob wears the blue jumper I told him to take and for once he listened and I was glad because the day was still warm but I didn’t know how long he’d be out.
Across the room a woman glances at Robert, freezing his features one at a time on her sketchpad. Someone’s cut his hair and it’s lighter, even though he’s never dyed it that I know of. No part of him moves in the moment I’m looking.
I can’t see Raelene. She mustn’t be allowed to hear my testimony before her own. I don’t feel angry, or interesting, or any of the things I’ve been accused of. I did decide to swear an oath. The witness box feels enough like a pulpit. The microphone only records, it doesn’t amplify your voice, so speak as clearly as you can please Mr Weaver.
“Could you describe Robert’s behaviour?”
I see Rob over the lawyer’s shoulder, waiting. I see him waiting on plastic chairs outside closed doors, while inside Raelene or I (in the beginning, it was always both) pleaded his case to the principal, the soccer coach, the Scout leader.
“Mr Weaver? Could you describe his behaviour that day?”
“Oh. He was … withdrawn? I didn’t really – I mean, there wasn’t any sign, in the morning…”
Now we see the victim. There should be a graphic content warning but I guess the jury doesn’t have much choice and anyway the photos aren’t especially graphic. His half-closed eyes look like a terrible Facebook picture, a scratch on his cheek that could just as easily have been from soccer. You can’t see his teeth, but his mouth looks like a cliff that’s had a landslide. Robert’s fist came at approximately an eighty-degree angle to his right temple.
I look at the sketchpad where the woman is now drawing me. She’s wearing a suit and carries coloured pencils in a briefcase. Probably moonlights as a street artist, beret and combat boots, charges tourists through the nose for sketches on park benches.
“Thank you, Mr Weaver.”
I tiptoe out. I think Robert moves but my bifocals split the dock in two like the line between water and sky, and I don’t turn my head to look. Meaghan Henderson waves me along the corridor like a flight attendant, fingers pointed, palm upwards.
“Don’t forget your bag,” she says.
Outside it’s exactly as I imagined, down to the schoolkids on smartphones outside Hyde Park Barracks. The Reserve Bank to the left, further along Parliament, the State Library in glass then sandstone, everything important close together like at a theme park, banners on the lampposts proclaiming the national week of something, streets named after great people, one side open wide to the Gardens, a concrete block overpass and then water. Circular Kway, Rob would call it. A train makes heavy noises overhead. Boats are tethered with oversized ropes.
A guide holding a flag leads a group of Chinese schoolkids toward that historic building where the pipes are exposed and somehow significant. I remember a woman taking Rob out of his pram here, holding him giggling for a photo with the sun coming through his white-blond hair.
The sky is an even blue with two clouds arranged behind the Harbour Bridge. Four women in niqabs form an impromptu paparazzi for the arriving ferry. Their digital cameras pop like macadamia nuts parting between teeth.
Fifteen dollars buys a disposable camera in Circular Quay. It makes cheap plastic sounds and I keep pressing the wobbly button after the film is gone.