In the early seventies, Helen Garner, a newly single mother, found herself in the first of several “hippie houses” she lived in that decade in the suburbs of Melbourne. She read and made up songs with her daughter and fell in love with a heroin addict—an affair she documented daily in her diary. The writing deepened as her life became more complicated. Soon, she began to see an outline. “Story is a chunk of life with a bend in it,” Garner told Thessaly La Force in her Art of Fiction interview, published in the Fall issue of the Review, “and I could feel this one coming.” Every day for a year, after she had dropped her daughter off at school, she sat in the state library working on her first novel, Monkey Grip.
The book was a hit, although several critics (“almost always men”) accused Garner of simply publishing her personal journals. The truth is, she confesses, the novel really was closely based on her diary—and why not? “Underlying the famously big gap between fiction and nonfiction there’s a rather naive belief that fiction is invented—that it’s pulled out of thin air,” Garner says. “All those comments I’ve had to cop about my novels not being novels—they rest on that idea that the novel is mightier than every other form.” When we asked Garner—who is also an accomplished journalist who has covered criminal trials for decades—whether she might share with us something from her recent journals, she sent us a true “chunk of life,” at once artfully sculpted and uncompromisingly honest.
In the winter of 2017, when I wrote these entries, three things were dawning on me: first, that if my hearing continued to fade I would have to stop writing about criminal trials; second, that although I was probably burned-out, I would miss the courts terribly; and third, that I would be saved from boredom and despair by the company of my young grandchildren, who live next door.
Took the 17-year-old to the city to buy a pair of Doc Martens for her birthday. We walked past the Supreme Court. “Nanna, is this where you go to those trials?” “Yes. That big brown building.” “Can we go in and have a look?” At the door of the first courtroom we come to, a murder trial is rolling. I show her how to bow and we creep into the media seats. Young guy in the dock, pale, rigid, in a dark blue suit. The witness on the stand is giving a graphic account of what happens inside a skull when a head is smashed against a concrete curb. Oh God. I glance up at the judge. I know her. What will she think of me, bringing a schoolgirl in here? The girl is very still, straight-backed, bright-faced, watching and listening. I sit there gritting my teeth. Court rises and I hustle her on to the street. “Are you okay? Are you upset? Was it too much?” She wakes from a reverie. “No. I’m fine. It wasn’t upsetting. Because it was scientific.”
In the post office throwaway bin I find a CD of Glen Campbell’s Greatest Hits. Secretly in the car I play over and over Jimmy Webb’s three works of genius: “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and “Galveston.” On the freeway my ten-year-old grandson digs out the Campbell from the mess in the glove box: “Who’s this?” I flinch, but he puts it on, and soon we’re singing along, him in his breaking voice, me in my old woman’s one which has dropped to a tenor. He loves all the songs, even the revolting ones like “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife.”
Court 4, pale pink with high, looped plaster garlands that glistened like ivory. The sentencing of the African refugee who’d killed three of her children. The judge read out the sentence. I was straining to hear, fighting my hearing loss and the muffled acoustic of the courtroom. Her husband was shot dead in front of her? They burned his body? They raped her? She began to weep and couldn’t stop. Her two robed lawyers approached the huge old timber dock, they had to reach up and hook their fingers at shoulder level over its high edge, I saw their pale hands grip the rim, like kids at a lolly-shop counter. She got 26 years, 20 before she can apply for parole. Even the tough-looking woman security guard was wiping her eyes. Walked away, walked and walked through the city, crying and raving to myself, bought a pair of black trousers and a T-shirt, went up the stairs to Gopal’s and ate a bowl of carrot and beetroot salad for $4. I’ll be dead by the time she gets out. What will she do, in prison, each day for 20 years? What will become of her other kids? It seemed the first time I’d ever seriously asked myself: Why do we put people in jail?
The barristers’ hands on the rim of the dock—a memory from the 60s. In the corner shop near our house a couple of adults are waiting to be served. A boy of seven or so is standing tiptoe at the counter, laboriously spreading out coins. His cheeks turn red: he hasn’t got enough. A pause. In a high, earnest little voice he says to the shop lady, “Would you trust me to run home and get the rest?” The grown-ups exchange soft looks over his head. “Off you go,” says the shop lady, and he darts out the door.
Judges must have to weigh up a case on a highly technical set of scales. They’re afraid of having to account for themselves to a higher court. They can never just act on the human thing: “I felt it would be cruel not to have mercy on this poor brutalized grieving wretch.” And when I read the tabloids about the African woman’s sentence, the heartless pipsqueaks screaming for blood, I started to understand the dark rocks between which a judge has to steer the ship, in these matters.
The waitress at Akita places before me a small cherry-red bowl of miso soup, and shuffles away. I nudge the bowl into the center of the dark wooden table and sit with my hands in my lap. Faint steam rises off the soup’s cloudy surface.
Maybe I’m coming to the end of writing about courts. I can’t hear properly. I can’t keep up. And I can’t bear the pain. Maybe my ears are packing it in on purpose, to save me. Also, is it “morbid” to be as fascinated as I am by other people’s suffering? To be awed by it? Will I ever stop asking myself this stupid question? Do real journalists ask it? Maybe they don’t, maybe that’s why I like to hang out with them—you can laugh. “He wouldn’t let me see the brief of evidence,” says my friend in the café, “but it was in front of him on the table, and one thing I’ve got good at, as a journalist, is reading upside down.”
God, I so love being old and not married. Out the other side of sex and love and all that torment. I can go out drinking martinis with the clever young guys I’m friends with—well, actually they’re middle-aged. With gray hair. Last night the bar was almost empty, the football was playing on the big screen with the sound down low. Every now and then I’d look up and see some outrageous piece of thuggery that caused me to exclaim and curse, while the men went on talking in wise, quiet voices about books and biography and publishing. By what exercise of virtue have I deserved this?
Late in a photo session for a writers’ festival I wandered vaguely towards the laptop on which the photographer was sorting the shots of me he had just taken. He turned his shoulder to me: “No.”
In the lobby of the Magistrates’ Court an old man had a seizure in the fine-paying queue. A hoarse cry, a groan, and he was on the floor, awkward-necked, his head in his big pale pensioner’s glasses resting on a crouching bystander’s thigh. Security running down the stairs. Paramedics, a gurney. Meanwhile I was stopped at the bag check: “Have you got a measuring tape in there? Something with a circle of metal?” I plunged my hand into my red backpack from which before leaving home I had removed everything metal; and came up with the dispenser of dental floss. I said, “I suppose I could strangle someone with it.” The security guy looked me up and down, and allowed himself a tiny smile.
My law professor friend visits from D.C. Her quick wit, her skepticism, as we stride shoulder to shoulder up Collins Street. We act out for each other our mortifications and triumphs large and small, never bored, doubling over in convulsions or dabbing at our sentimental tears.
My grandsons are out of holdable childhood. Gone are those hours I spent on the blue couch with a little boy crammed close to me on either side, watching ep after ep of Adventure Time, tranquil and absorbed. From time to time we would exchange knowing glances, without speaking. At least the girl still kisses me, puts her long arms round me when one of us comes home. She’s given up playing football herself, but at her brothers’ matches she leans over the boundary fence, in her dirty Blundstones and thick socks and the calf-length black wool coat I bought at Bergdorf Goodman thirty years ago, and shouts orders at them like a coach: “Man up! Where’s your man?”
Springsteen is rowdily singing on the car radio: “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.” Yeah, they have; but I change stations. Ooh. Bob Dylan with Johnny Cash. How modest and melodious are their voices and simple acoustic guitars, after Springsteen’s hypermasculine bellowing.
I bought a large bone for the dog. Thrust it between his jaws and he swaggered away to gnaw on it, alone on wet grass under the fig tree. Later I took him over to Travancore. Superb winter sky, pure as porcelain, air growing sharp as we played on the damp green: he ran furiously after the ball, tail whirling, one ear up, one down.
At the long table I remembered why I stopped going to dinner parties years ago. The shouting, the riding roughshod, the scornful belligerence that calls itself conversation. I felt myself sinking and sinking, disappearing below the plimsoll line that divides full consciousness from a daze of dismay, suppressed rage, and crippling boredom.
I drove the thirteen-year-old to his football match at Sanctuary Lakes, an outer suburb unknown to us. On the freeway I became confused. Me: “Shit, man. I think we’re lost.” Him (calmly, with the street directory open on his scrawny bare thighs): “Oh well. It’s not as if I’m the most valued member of the team.” He looks at me slyly. We laugh so much I almost have to pull off the road.
Her hands. I noticed them on the table when we had coffee. Broad and well-shaped, competent. But it was the skin I was struck by: dry, large-pored, even coarse, and I thought at once, These are a doctor’s hands, worn from being vigorously scrubbed, scores of times a day. Fresh respect filled me.
“A great capacity to be alone.” Zadie Smith on what a novelist needs, or perhaps by temperament already has.
The American law professor says she wants a pair of R.M.Williams boots like the ones the leader of the National Party wears, but gold. If I had cute little feet like hers I would run right out and buy a pair. I’d thrash them round the house for a year till they faded to the soft gold that’s no longer gold but still possesses the magic of what once was gold. Then I’d wear them with some equally faded and trashed wheat-colored linen pants and an extremely faded and trashed pink linen jacket with the sleeves rolled up just past the wrist; and then I’d go to a cocktail party and drink a very dry martini with a twist, and a glass of water, and then I’d go home tired but happy.
How I know I’m losing my hearing: if someone covers their mouth with their hand while they’re talking to me I’m filled with rage and want to slap their hand away.
A mother in the airport departure lounge with her two little boys, who were trying to plait her long thick dark hair. Breathing heavily through their noses they divided it into sections, the older boy giving his brother instructions: “You hold this bit. Hold it over there.” She smiled at me and I said, “You’ve got a whole team of hairdressers working on you.” The boys kept their eyes on the job, carefully controlling their mouths.
A friend shows me a photo of his grandparents. Me: “I love old headshots. The way people never used to smile at a camera. They always make me cry.” Him: “Oh, don’t cry.” Me: “It’s not sad crying. They lived. They died. It’s more like awe.”
Maybe I should have been a psychoanalyst.
In Emergency at the Royal Melbourne I was so interested in the goings-on there that I forgot why I’d come. A whole women’s roller derby team came clomping in, skates and all: one of them had broken her leg. A shaven-headed, barefoot, old homeless man wrapped in a blanket emerged from the treatment rooms roaring, “Criminals! Doctors, nurses—criminals! All crrrrriminals!” He climbed onto his motorized wheelchair and, still yelling insults, surged out on to the street, grand as a king going into exile. As the big doors slid shut behind him a man called out in a reproachful tone, “Have a bit of respect, mate.” And my chest pain was only muscular, from the gym.
“Come on! Get up! It’s eight o’clock!” The boy slid naked off the top bunk and landed on his feet before me, knees flexed, the glory of his body on full display. He was so cleanly muscled, so slim and ripply and golden, that I laughed out loud and so did he, in his insolence, in the careless joy of himself.
At the audiology clinic they clapped huge headphones on me, and told me to listen. I heard two women’s voices, one in each ear, each one reading aloud from a different children’s story book; then a third voice was laid across them, clearly enunciating a single sentence which it was my job to repeat aloud: The books were on the shelves. Pfffff, I thought, I can do this. But as the test progressed, the single-sentence voice sank further and further into the texture of the stories the two women were reading. Sank and sank till I could no longer even guess at what it was saying and could only distinguish faint meaningless sounds. All I could say was “No. No. No.” It was awful. Existentially awful. Like dying. I was frightened. I wanted to cry. But then they began to turn up the volume of the single-sentence voice until once again I heard it perfectly. This, they said, showed two things: the improvement I can expect from a hearing aid, and the fact that there’s a big cognitive factor involved—the brain has to work very hard, as cells die and hearing fades, to supply the missing sounds, so that when you “strain to hear” you’re not actually hearing more, but laboring intellectually to make sense of what little you are hearing. (Does this mean that a clever person “hears” better than a stupid one? Can this be?)
I get into bed, groaning with weariness. One of the windows is open. I hear (or intellectually create, since I won’t get the hearing aid for three weeks) a soft rushing sound in the plane leaves, and the gentlest imaginable smattering of raindrops.
Helen Garner is an Australian novelist and nonfiction writer, whose books include Monkey Grip, The Children’s Bach, and The Spare Room.
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