Wild Dog River

Chapter Fifteen – The Woman in the Gallery

WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON

That night was the hottest since my arrival at the prison. Lying on my cot, I sweated like a pig in an abattoir yard, while mosquitoes whined in my ear and pricked at my skin. The prison blankets offered protection from these vermin, but made the heat worse when I swaddled them over my body and face.

In the morning, after the emptying of latrine buckets, I had an early breakfast with a Townsville baker facing assault charges for a fight at Tattersall’s Hotel on Flinders Street. He was a mild bloke with a young family but must have had a hell of a temper, for by all accounts he nearly killed the other man. He ate heartily, but I could scarcely take a spoonful, my gut already full to the brim with bile.

I was allowed a morning shower, after which I dressed my still-damp body in trousers, shirt and a suit jacket that my mum had brought in for me. The jacket was a little too big, but it was brand new, and God knows how she had found the money to pay for it. Dressed up and uncomfortable, the tie felt like a hangman’s noose around my neck. Two screws I didn’t know escorted me out to the gate, where the cops took custody of me, handcuffing my wrists and bundling me into the back seat of a white XA Falcon.  

How real and vibrant Townsville looked to me on that day! Many of the street names were of heroes or battles from World War Two, and the shade trees had witnessed those long-ago scenes of American soldiers carousing, and men marching down to the harbour to embark overseas – just as I had done a few years previously.

This trial was a chance at freedom, a crack through which the truth might crawl, and my nerves were jangling with the stress of no sleep mingling with hope and despair. The courthouse loomed ahead, its cream walls and stately columns telling me, falsely or not, that here, at least, my voice would be heard.

Inside the courthouse they took me to a small room where my lawyer was waiting. The cuffs stayed on, and one of the cops took up position at the door. Another man breezed into the room – a broad-shouldered bloke of about forty, who had no doubt once played second row in some private school rugby team. He shook hands with my lawyer and turned to look at me, appraising me from top to toe. His voice, when it came, was plummy. Like an ABC newsreader.

‘My name is Kenneth Hewitt, and I’ll be arguing your case in court. Take a seat and we’ll go over your testimony. I’ll let you know what to expect from the prosecutor.’

I sat down, but he remained standing, towering over me. He was one of those men with a very dark beard growth, so that even now, close-shaven, the skin of his face was almost black.

‘Are you a Ford man or a Holden man?’ he asked, blue eyes sparkling.

The Hardie Ferodo race in Bathurst, I realised then, was only days away and I’d scarcely thought about it since I left on the voyage north, less than three weeks earlier. Normally I would have been as excited as any young bloke, and even now I inhaled a sudden whiff of melted rubber, high-octane fuel, and hot exhaust fumes. Apart from fishing, cars had once been my main interest in life.

‘Peter Brock and the LJ Toranas all the way,’ I said. ‘If Brockie doesn’t make it, then Bob Jane or Colin Bond will.’

‘That’s true, lad,’ said the barrister, ‘but the Falcon GTs are quick – and Moffat can drive. Anyway, there’s something even more important happening first. We have to get you off these charges. We know you didn’t do it. Proving it is the problem.’

 For the next ten minutes he guided me through the stages through which the trial would unfold, and the importance of consistency. ‘The prosecutor will bully you. He’ll make you question your own memory. He’ll probe for weaknesses and errors in your statement.’

He advised me to pause and think before answering, and that if I became upset or confused, to ask the judge for time to recover. By the end of that short briefing session I was starting to trust him, and even like him a little.

When they took me in to the main courtroom and led me to the dock, I could hardly believe that all those people were there for me – everyone from the cute blonde in the stenographer’s chair to one of my old mates from the Post in the press gallery. Some of my school friends were in the gallery too, along with Dave and Mum holding hands in the front.

They took off my handcuffs, but the dock was designed to hold a man, with a heavy desk lid that hinged down, squeezing the prisoner in, giving him very little room to move. It was demeaning and uncomfortable, and the sweat began to roll down my face and neck again.

I sat there – trapped – and locked eyes with Mum in the gallery, a handkerchief in her hand, trying to smile encouragingly at me. I saw and felt her broken heart, and that seemed worse than anything. Worse than when I’d lined up on the quay with my unit – 7 RAR – to sail overseas. From the day my old man died, she’d done everything for m and my brother. I’d never seen her so broken.

The judge walked in from a side door, and the court finally quieted down. It seemed that things were about to get underway, when a female voice called out, high and clear.

‘He didn’t do it.’

I whipped my head around. It was my mother, face lined with tears, Dave trying to shush her.

‘They’ve framed my boy up, now do the right thing and let him go.’

I was so proud of her in that moment, though I knew that she had always been brave and strong inside. Mum didn’t care that she might be in contempt of court. She was letting them know the facts before they started – cutting through the self-absorption of the instruments of law and order in that room.

For a moment the only sound was a gecko which chose that moment to make his chattering, chirping call from some hidden alcove. This was followed by clapping from the gallery; my mates and supporters, even my old colleague from the Post joined in.

When it stopped, the judge used his eyes like telescopic sights, peering over his glasses to the gallery, searching out the source of the words. Finally, he focussed on Mum. ‘That may be, Madam, but it is the task of this court to find out, without interruption and with due process. If you call out again, I will have you removed.’

I locked eyes with Mum once more, and with Dave, who now had a grin on his face. They were with me, in word and deed, and somehow we would prevail through the theatrical nonsense that cloaks the inhumanity of the justice system.

©2023 Greg Barron

Read all the chapters so far here.

My latest novel is called The Pedestrian. Learn more here.

Continued next Saturday.

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