The City at Night by Helen Garner: thoughts on the murder of Jill Meagher
One of Australia’s leading authors reflects in her new book on the aftermath of an Irishwoman’s murder in Melbourne in 2012
Jill Meagher: her murder in Melbourne in 2012 sparked a huge social outcry
Tens of thousands of people walk along Sydney Road in Brunswick, Melbourne, in a peace march to commemorate murdered Irish woman, Jill Meagher, on September 30th, 2012, in Melbourne, Australia. Photograph: Justin McManus, Fairfax Media/ Getty Images
People look at floral tributes outside the front of the Duchess Boutique on Sydney Rd, the store which captured the last CCTV footage of Jill Meagher on September 28th, 2012 in Melbourne, Australia. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Helen Garner: Do you think the Jill Meagher demo was immoderate? That idea keeps coming to me, but I scotch it – I hate the way it makes me feel cynical and ironic
The rooftop bar was buzzing, late on a warm Friday afternoon. My friend and I found a spot under an umbrella and ordered up. Each of us was secretly longing to talk about the fact that the cops had charged a man with the rape and murder of Jill Meagher, but before we could get to it, five youngish blokes strode into the bar, disposed themselves grandly around the next table, and began to roar and bellow. People turned to them, brows creasing but faces carefully blank. The men were throwing back lurid cocktails. The sonic level soared. My friend and I moved closer together.
“Did you see that Burmese asylum seeker on the news last night,” I shouted, “chucking a mental in a detention centre?”
“Laying about him with a pool cue!” cried my friend. “TV sets exploded! Computers!”
To converse we had to shape our hands into trumpets, and yell straight into each other’s faces. How did the cops find the Brunswick guy? That hoodie was an unusual colour. I bet someone dobbed him in. What was he doing, wandering around at that hour? Thank God they had CCTV in that bridal shop. Did you go to the march? I was worried that it would be too peaceful, not enough about how women aren’t safe to walk home alone. I was more worried that people would start screeching about civil rights violations. How can the streets ever be made safe? There’s evil in the world. The place where she was dumped is out near Vanessa’s. Would you go there? No way. It looked beautiful on TV. Soft. Long grass blowing in the wind. And in the foreground you could see a disturbed patch. Imagine being a cop and walking towards that shallow grave. It was shallow. He must have just scraped some dirt over her and bolted. Do you think he thought it was worth it? Does a bloke like that think? Would he have been trying for years to keep a grip? Did you hear that on the CCTV tape he puts out his hand as if to touch her cheek? And she rears back? I heard that another woman came forward with a story from a year ago. Some guy had tried to persuade her to get into his car. She got away. But she said he had a pitch. A pitch? What’s that mean? It’s when they sound plausible enough to make you pause in your stride and pay attention. Just long enough for them to gain a psychological advantage. I nearly went down to the court. But I thought it would be too horrible. In the police car, when he was doubled over with his hands clasped behind his neck, you could see he was wearing a wedding ring. No, he had a ring on every finger. What about the poor guy, her workmate, who offered to walk her home? And she said no, she’d be all right? I feel so bad for him. All the women he’s ever known would be feminists. He would have learnt not to patronise them with his protectiveness. God, how many times have I walked home feeling invincible. In the ’60s Evie used to stroll across Fawkner Park at midnight. She said she was never scared. Yeah, but she was tall. So? I wish I’d gone to the march. Do you think the flowers and candles in Sydney Road were a bit melodramatic? I saw some women crossing themselves. As if it was a shrine. Well, it was, and at least the flowers were fresh, and not wrapped in horrible plastic like the ones people left in London for Princess Di. It’s spring, I suppose, flowers everywhere. Princess Di happened in summer. I was on a train in France a few days after the crash. A Frenchwoman saw me reading about it in the paper. She said, “Can you explain to me this immoderate mourning?” Do you think the Jill Meagher demo was immoderate? That idea keeps coming to me, but I scotch it – I hate the way it makes me feel cynical and ironic. Why didn’t you go? I tried. Someone said it was at noon on Saturday. I stuck some rosemary in my buttonhole and drove up to the corner of Moreland Road. I thought there’d be fifty or a hundred people but there was nobody. Only a few women in headscarves doing their shopping. There was a cold wind. Everything was grey and desolate. I hung around for a while, and went home. Then on Sunday night I saw it on the news. I couldn’t believe it. Thirty thousand people. Sydney Road packed solid for miles. You should have gone on Facebook, idiot. I don’t know how to – I’m stuck in a pre-Facebook world. Some people are saying the whole thing was only a social media phenomenon. Who cares? I was sad. I wanted to be around other people who were sad. Actually I howled. Me too. I’ve been sick about it all week. My guts were in a knot. I kept tripping over things and bumping into walls.
We gave up on the bar with its thundering men and parted on Bourke Street. On the platform at Parliament Station I read while I waited. A man sat down beside me. I glanced up. He was in his thirties, dark jaw, dark brow. Holding out his iPhone in cupped hands, he shuffled his bum along the bench until our sides touched. I leaned away.
“Excuse me,” he said. His face was shining. “I hope you don’t mind. I’ve come from the hospital. My wife’s just had our first child, a few hours ago. Can I share it with you?”
She had rung him at work. Come home! Quick! She was going into labour! He jumped into the car and floored it from Glenroy to Broadmeadows. He was nearly home when a paramedic called. The ambulance was stationary on the corner of Camp Road and the highway. She was about to give birth. He burst into the back of the ambulance just in time to see the baby crowning. It was a girl. Her name was Poppy.
He thrust the phone into my hand and we bowed our heads over the screen. There she was, in the hospital with her white-toothed mother: a stunned scrap of creamy brown in a jaunty cotton cap. I had to pull out my hanky. He was wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. We both started laughing. Thank you for telling me! Thank you for listening!
The Craigieburn train slid in. For three stations, heading out of the city, we hunched over his photos and talked wildly about parents and children and migration, and marriage and work and houses. When the train reached my stop we shook hands, and kissed each other on both cheeks. I stepped out into the spring dusk, and away he went, a stranger whose life had just been blown wide open, going to look for his car where he’d left it on the side of the road, way out north in Broadie.
This is an extract from Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner, published at £12.99 by Text Publishing. Garner’s novels are Monkey Grip, The Children’s Bach, Cosmo Cosmolino and The Spare Room. Her non-fiction includes This House of Grief – The Story of a Murder Trial