Celissa – Short fiction by James Milsom

By James Milsom
Photo of black hands behind bars

This story is a part of our September focus on Violence – you can access more content from this issue here

By James Milsom

 

“Mum and Dad both. Picked ’em up over night at one o’ the town camps”, the young cop spat.

Well, he wasn’t that young. Just young for a cop, and that’s relative not only to the profession of law keepers in general, but to this part of the world, where they fly them in younger and younger every month.

“This one’s just bawlin’, not a word out of ‘er,” came his almost put on drawl. He stood uneasily in the doorway to the legal aid office, where I sat alone waiting for a Magistrate who was teaching me not to make him wait, by making me wait. I pushed away from the rarely inhabited communal desk in the centre of the tatty-carpeted, coffee stained, spent teabag scented office.

My movement seemed to convey consent to his entering the office, and he bent his knees and ducked, miming, coaxing the girl into the office – an interpretive dance to dispense with his duty of care.

I speculated, inwardly, that he probably wished he’d opted not to accompany the girl out of the police watch-house where her parents had apparently been incarcerated. But I wouldn’t know.

“I’ll look after her”, was the first thing I said, before I gave any thought to whether, or how, I might be able to do so. Or whether I even had a duty to do so. Or whether it mattered whether or not I was duty bound. Whether anyone who knew that this thirteenish year old girl was in what was quite clearly not her home town without her family to protect her ought to help or protect her.

I missed whatever it was he said next. He left before I could consider whether to clarify. Duty: discharged.

“What’s your name?”, I said in a pretense of measured, clear, simple English. Cultural sensitivity and clear communication. Professionalism in the face of adversity. She wiped a stream of wet, thin mucus across her face.

The girl had dark skin. Darker than lots of the Aboriginal people living in town. She was skinny beneath long, loose fitting, shiny American basketball shorts and a baggy, faded t-shirt. She was from well outside of town, I thought. A couple of hundred k’s. Maybe more. Maybe out of the state.

She spun a hundred and eighty degrees and started walking from the office toward the front door of the court house.

“Hey!” I said, my voice raised. I stepped around her, careful not to make contact, not at all confident of what my limitations were in this type of situation. My clients generally came to me behind thick glass. I mirrored her movements for a second or two, blocking her way so she couldn’t make it outside the court house, like something from an 80s music video.

“What’s your name?”, I said again, with what I hoped might come across as authority in my voice. Authoritative yet inviting, that’s where I tried to pitch it. She looked up for the first time. She smelled like the bush. Smoke and sweat.

“Celissa”, she said then sat down on a bench with her back to the wall. My cufflink pinged against a rack of brochures of varying ages, all concerned with domestic violence; a new slogan for each change of government, 30 years of Aboriginal policy.

“Celissa”, I simultaneously ordered and invited, “I want to help you, and I think your mum and your dad are here at the court somewhere, so I think I better find them, then we can talk a bit.”

Her eyelids dropped again. Her neck craned, not in defiance, but certainly unwilling to facilitate eye contact. I took her decision not to walk away again as reassurance, gathered my things from the office, and left her by the brochures to wait.

~~~~

It was a Friday. Worse, it was after 2 pm on a Friday. There was one Magistrate left at the Court. And he wanted to go home. Maybe to golf. The prosecutor wanted to go home. Maybe to golf. The court guards, ever watchful over their soft-core magazine porn, clutching spaghetti Western prop keys and glaring at prisoners, wanted to go home.

Or maybe to the ‘screws club’, where they embraced their prison moniker, its original deprecatory meaning long since lost. A corrugated iron shed with linoleum floors and fluorescent lighting. Over-imbibing in the confinement of their locked-down, private social facility, and sharing stories of long days confined at work. I ran past the screws club now and then. They actually had bars on the windows.

There was, as the funding acquittal documentation disclosed, a team of dedicated criminal lawyers within the team at the Aboriginal Legal Service. They just weren’t available at court on that particular Friday, with one exception.

As I made my way to the cells I phoned the central office, which I hoped might be abuzz with professionals waiting to be dispatched. I was put on hold. A woman in an audio booth ten thousand kilometres and fifteen years away reassured me, helpfully, of the commitment to customer service that was held so dear. Indeed, she added, it was the very motivation for the guarantee that an ‘operator’, as if I had called an American switchboard in 1952, would be with me shortly. Five minutes of easy listening music interspersed with reminders of the same commitment raised doubt in my mind as to its veracity. Six minutes. Eight. Nine. I hung up and bolted from the office.

At the bottom of the stairs, directly beneath the main court room, was a heavy, innocuously beige, locked door accompanied by a buzzer in 1990s off white. For the tenth or eleventh time that day I pressed it. Nothing. The twelfth. A tiny clicking noise emerged from somewhere within the locking mechanism. I pushed it. Nothing. Another click. “IT’S OPEN!” came the invitation, like a toddler announcing a bowel movement, from beyond the door. It wasn’t. I buzzed again. The door swung open, a uniformed prison guard’s frown revealed in its wake.

“You’ve got two”, said the guard, who looked like he might be frightening to his children, and them alone. And only before they hit puberty.

“Who do you want first?” he said, as he unlocked the bulking, scratched quadruple glazed door to the women’s cell, where a lone dark figure sat huddled in the corner. The only other person still remaining in the court cells after what had already been a busy day sat, similarly positioned to the woman, in one of the men’s cells adjacent. I could have enlightened him but I wouldn’t have done myself any favours.

“Thanks mate – she’ll do”, I said, in words and intonation completely uncharacteristic of my personality. I could have winked at him, a guarantee of our somehow fraternal relationship but it didn’t occur to me to do so and would hardly have seemed genuine in any event.

The female prisoner emerged from the cell. She stumbled dizzily as she shuffled past the guard and, fearful of making contact, he arched gracefully away from her, turning his head so as to avoid even the possibility of brushing against her wild, black, frizzy hair.

“I can’t understand why they got me in ‘ere”, she said as she sat, engulfing the miniature, steel, bolted down stool in the interview cell opposite me. More thick, scratched, greasy glass separated us. Nine holes, grid-locked like the TV station logo, facilitated verbal communication. Barely.

“It’s a warrant”, I bellowed into the glass, probably too loudly, accommodating the vague possibility that my new client was hearing impaired. Probably humouring me, she pressed her ear to the glass.

“The police are saying you didn’t come to court one time in…”, I leafed through the stack of paperwork Constable First Class something had shoved at me en route to the cells. “In June last year it was. Do you remember that?”

“Driving trouble?” she asked, eyebrows raised. I leafed back and forth. “Ye…. yes. Looks like it. They said you’ve got no licence and you drive a car, after you drank some grog as well… in … town.”

I heard myself confusing tenses – intentionally – saw that I was trying to simplify the message – to speak her language – failing miserably. I hadn’t even asked what her language was. And even if I did I knew I didn’t speak it.

“I thought I already came for that court”, she said, in perfect past tense.

“Sounds like maybe not”, I rushed, “but I also needed to say I’ve got your daughter upstairs. Celissa. She’s pretty upset.”

Her face fell. I’d read before, somewhere or other, about someone’s ‘face falling’. I always thought it was a ridiculous turn of phrase until I saw it. Her mouth turned down at the edges. Her eyes widened. Her shoulders slumped. Her frame collapsed a little, and she dropped an inch or so from my line of sight.

“You’re gonna get me out?” she asked. Tears had begun to run down her cheeks.

“I’m going to tell that Magistrate you need to come out”, I said, and I hoped it was convincing. I could afford her another ten minutes if I was to get her released from custody before the weekend.

“My name’s Maggie”, she said, as I hurried her toward the door to her cell, twelve or so minutes later.

“Oh. Yeah. I know, I saw it on the… the paper.”

She watched as I became quite convincingly flustered, suddenly cognisant of my faux pas. So finally I introduced myself to Maggie, a quarter of an hour after we had established our ‘lawyer-client’ relationship.

The guard sat with his afternoon tea and toast, watching the interchange, somehow angling vegemite-coated triangles into the narrow, complex lines of his  mouth.

Maggie’s husband was even quicker.

“Alfred”, he told me, after I asked his name in the first milliseconds of his having been released from his cell to meet me. Introduction. Tick. Now what?

Alfred was in for assault, breaching a domestic violence restraining order, and so on, and so on. Something was supposed to have happened between him and Maggie the night before. Grog, in town from the bush for a shopping trip, argument, fight, etc. Same story.

Alfred was resolute. “I’ll do my time”, he told me. His last stint was three months for the same kind of stuff.

“Maybe I’ll get four or five, ey?” he asked or said. “I got my brothers in there. Cousin-brother too. My uncle been locked up too. Fifteen years. I’ll do my time.”

~~~~~

Celissa was waiting dutifully by the domestic violence brochures, which is how I came to recall that she existed. The Magistrate had refused to release Maggie, offering reasons that made me grateful for the appellate system. Alfred hadn’t even tried for bail. Husband and wife, detained for the weekend at least, side by side with matching hangovers and a slab of prefab concrete between them. Their daughter upstairs, in view of daylight, alone.

I picked up the cordless phone and sat by Celissa’s side on the long, vinyl bench, an approximate chair’s width between us. Boundaries. “We better find you somewhere to sleep, mate”, I told her, offering her the phone, wondering what she might do with it.

“I got no families in town here”, she said softly. “I got to sleep with my mum and dad.” Her hands were clasped tightly together and I could sense that the muscles in her bone-thin legs were tensed. She was hiding her face from me, so the first I saw of her tears were those dropping lightly to her lap.

“OK. But maybe we can find somewhere else for you to sleep, hey? There’s a youth centre where they might have a bed, I reckon?”

I did reckon. But I was asking too. Or rather, I was wondering. The youth accommodation options rarely had vacancies, and on Friday nights in town they tended to save one for a true delinquent.

“I can’t sleep there!” Celissa cried, her face raised toward me, her sobs now audible. “I got to sleep with my families.”

I took out a list of phone numbers and started dialling. No vacancies. Anywhere. And even had I found a bed – Celissa wasn’t going.

“Are you sure you haven’t got some family in town we could ring up? Must be there’s someone from out your way who could help.”

No. The answer was no. She was distraught. As was I, though I masked it with feigned professionalism and actual concern.

I leafed through my notes – brief, reflecting the attention I’d been able to afford her parents. “Your aunty lives in town. She’s on dialysis. You know the one I mean?”

She didn’t. I called every dialysis hostel in town. Three of them. Girl, young, from the Western desert, mum and dad’s names are… aunty lives in town now, and so on. Those were the clues. Bizarrely, I found her. Aunty Flora.

~~~~~

Aunty Flora gracefully accepted delivery of a niece it appeared she’d never met before. Celissa fumbled behind me as we entered the hostel, the family pack of fried chicken she had insisted upon my buying gripped tightly between her fingers.

~~~~~

Diagonally opposite the fried chicken place is the alcohol place. Well, one of the alcohol places. There are a few others within stumbling distance. The one where ‘everyone’ goes, though, is the one looked over by the smartly dressed, snowy-topped Southern gentleman who perches atop the deep fryer shrine to secret herbs and spices.

Across the road from the chicken place there’s a vacant block sprawling south towards the hospital. I passed it as I rode east toward the drinking place, where I was greeted by a security guard and a fence too tall for him to lean on convincingly.

A small group of young, sturdy lads wandered by as I looped my U-lock around a fence pole. I looked up and one caught my eye. He strode with some intent toward me and I saw the security guard start upon him from behind. The security guard’s bald head was moist with sweat and his black polo-shirt-and-slacks combo – like a gothic golfer – was doing him no favours in the afternoon heat. Still, he hovered behind my approacher, ready to pounce.

“Hello Taz”, I smiled. A former client, grinning like a mad man despite the poor taste of such a description given his psychiatric diagnosis, was upon me. He leapt into me with full force, his fingernails scratching past my cheek as he threw his arms around my neck. It was a hug, I communicated to the security guard, who was confused by the interaction between people of such polarised skin tones.

“My lawyer. My lawyer! Hey brothers, this my lawyer!”, Taz excitedly touted, “My lawyer – you been alright?”

“Yeah I’m good, mate. Bit busy at the court there. You know how it is.” Did he know how it was? Was I even suggesting he did? Or just saying something I’ve heard people say before when they want people to agree with them. Am I right? Know what I’m saying?

“My lawyer. You might buy me a little bit grog ey?”

Pages from his psych report washed through my head. Sexually abused in childhood. Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Or was it syndrome? There was at least one syndrome. And a spectrum disorder. I thought better of his request.

“Nah, sorry mate. I’m meeting up with my girlfriend, so I might just have a drink with her.” A twitch of his lip hinted at his frustration, but his eyes remained wet and wide, his cheeks bunched like curtains with the force of his smile. I lightly touched his arm.

“Anyway Taz, I better go, ey?” There I went again. An upward inflection and a query. Wanting him to agree. Attempting to establish common ground by the fence around an ostensibly whites only bar, within earshot of the black majority over the road. An informal, unnamed apartheid, half a century on from the original, in the centre of Australia.

I glanced over to the vacant lot; dark, earthy arms cradling plastic Coke bottles, half emptied of pale yellow liquid. Presumably a cask was stashed in the saltbush nearby.

~~~~~

An indeterminate period of time after I arrived, I made my fourth attempt to leave the bar. Success. The long tables were full to their heads with do-gooders and know-betters. Do-gooders is a common enough turn of phrase. I think I just coined the latter. Those who don’t just know better, but they know they know better, and they want you to know they know better.

I accepted hugs and pleas not to depart with grace, which is to say I didn’t ignore them. Not entirely. I didn’t heed the pleas, nor did I give them a second thought as the security guard, one hand behind him with a tiny wisp of smoke trailing downwind and back into the bar, opened the gate.

The Aboriginal contingent in the vacant block had swelled, with maybe 40 or 50 bodies of all ages and shapes amassing on the gravel. The hideous, repetitive, soulless strains from the drinking place cross-faded in my senses, swallowed up by the screamed abuse and chaotic revelry on the block.

Unlocking my bike, I decided on a ride into the Gap before heading home. Something to clear my head to ensure safe passage to morning; perhaps to release some of the binds of the West Australian micro-brewed ethanol throttling my senses.

I rolled gently through the kaleidoscopic scenery of Gap Road. Police wagons accruing passengers in their darkened cages. The hospital lawns packed with families sitting peacefully about their inpatient relatives, gowned in white, saline drips glistening under the streetlights.

Past the hospital I eased between the vacant block and the drinking place I’d just come from.

I felt a sudden impact, my neck snapped to the right and a sharp stab of pain ran through my jaw. My bike was beneath me and one foot was still on a pedal. Two young Aboriginal men danced away from me, sparring with one another, shrieking and hooting like a studio audience, and one turned back to see me laid out on the road, dizzy and confused. He wore a fluorescent singlet and tight, grey jeans. The other kept skipping and ducking away toward the block, so I figured it was the one who looked back who had hit me.

~~~~~

On arriving home I thought back to the young women who had rushed out from the block to help me. They ushered me over, one with my bike, the other under one arm, to the footpath by the drinking place, where some of my colleagues and friends might still have been sipping Sauv Blanc from New Zealand.

“You should call the cops”, one had said.

“I don’t know how”, I vaguely remember replying, winded by the fall, dizzy from the punch, lost as to what had happened and why.

They giggled a little bit at my reply and in retrospect I don’t blame them. It’s an easy phone number to recall. I had thanked them for their help, anxious to escape the eyes now wandering past the fence and toward me.

I unscrewed the lid of a bottle of red that was gathering dust and mouse shit by the side of the fridge. Having unscrewed it halfway I had second thoughts. It probably belonged to a housemate. The label bore a wedding photo for Katie and Liam. I certainly didn’t know them. Fair chance I also didn’t attend their wedding in ’09. I turned the cap back a few screws, then grabbed a glass, unscrewed it the whole way, and headed out to the pool.

Legs dangling in the water, a single, sleazy, fuzzy glow filled the water from the light the landlords had fancied as stylish. I sipped Katie and Liam’s ’09 vintage Cab Merlot, recalled my lack of wine knowledge, stopped thinking about it.

My jaw was aching where he’d struck me. My mind raced. Neurons firing like a Tarantino movie. I’d spent 18 months defending, for the most part at least, young Aboriginal men with an inexplicable tendency toward violence. Their victims were, for the most part at least, young Aboriginal women with an inexplicable tendency toward their aggressors.

Sometimes a tourist was attacked. A few days before, the local paper reported CCTV footage capturing a ‘young, Aboriginal male’ dragging a middle aged white woman from the mall. She gave police the story that the cameras didn’t record. Raped repeatedly. Tied down and beaten. In a caravan. Her caravan.

Most calls from home started with news of old friends. Generally old news. Then they moved on to the media frenzy over violence in the streets, alcohol fuelled and fierce.

The same stories had raised doubts in my mind before my decision to drive the two and a half thousand k’s into the desert. And once you get there, you learn to reassure those back home that it’s all a blow up. Exaggeration. You reassure them because you believe it. It was fine there.

When I awoke the next morning I pulled my curtain aside to catch my reflection in the window. I shifted in bed, angling myself to reflect my face in the glass, to obscure the palms and cobble stones outside my window. There was nothing visible. It felt like Mike Tyson had been my assailant – but I’d never been punched before so maybe it could get worse than this.

I poached eggs. Percolated coffee. Called the cops. Heard a voice down the line. Hung up. Drank the coffee. Percolated coffee. Called the cops. Heard a voice down the line. They’d be over to see me in half an hour.

Wow, I remember thinking. Could they hear the whiteness in my voice?

~~~~~

Saturday night was Saturday. Sunday was an extension of Saturday night. By Monday morning my jaw was fine.

Rushing to court, I was greeted by the friendly faces smiling up from their usual positions on the carelessly laid, uneven pavers encircling the welfare office.

Celissa even had a grin for me as I swept past, nearly missed her, then stopped and greeted her Aunt, with whom she appeared to have established a rapport.

In the legal aid office, the whiteboard was covered in red, green and white colour-coded names. Clients in custody. Clients on bail. And so on. I noted my initials next to a raft of names – the beginning of the lawyer-client relationship, and started toward the cells.

A police officer looked up as I passed him in the court foyer. It appeared to be a smirk, but I didn’t think I knew him well enough to deserve such disdain, so I discarded the thought.

“Heyyy!!!” came a roaring, triumphant greeting as I entered the cells. Police officers were walking a line-up of shackled Aboriginal prisoners into the grim, square corners of the complex. The prisoners looked defeated. Some were confused. One smiled, but in recognition rather than camaraderie with his detainer.

“Heard you’ve been doin’ a bit o’ boxin’, mate. That right?”. The police officer was one I had an almost informal rapport with, from countless pointless, intentional, rapport-building efforts I had made in an attempt to ease my passage through the courthouse at each level, including the very lowest.

His name was Pete. I said nothing, shocked at what he was saying, choking from the back of my throat.

“Yeah boys”, he now turned to his more receptive and sympathetic audience of colleagues. “Bloody copped it sweet from one of these mob, this one”, he motioned then to the prisoners, none of whom was the young man who had punched me. All of whom, however, shared his cultural heritage. Enough of a similarity, I suppose.

“I don’t…”, I started. And didn’t finish. I spun and headed out the door. Stopping wordlessly, facing toward the thick wooden door as I waited for an age for the lock to click.

Released, I jogged up the stairs, 29 years into my experience of the human race, felt tears on my cheeks for the second time in three days. For the second time in as many years.

Scribbling a note for my colleagues, I looked up to see Celissa in the doorway to the legal aid office, leaning comfortably against the frame, looking toward the floor near my feet.

“Celissa”, I said, knowing that I was what I appeared to be, a grown man, a professional by certain definitions, crying in a courthouse.

“Your mum and dad should be alright, I reckon. Another lawyer’s going to go and see your mum really soon. Then she’ll come out, OK?”

“My dad might get 5 months”, she said. I think she was about right.

~~~~~

 

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