The car trip felt inescapably long.
I sat in the back, tensely watching traffic. We couldn’t be late. I wondered if we had enough time – I didn’t want us to get there too early, waiting was not an option. I surreptitiously withdrew my phone, patiently feeding it information, agonising over its delays as I waited for it to tell me how long the trip would take. I tried to keep it quiet in the deathly silent car.
“Head East.” said my phone, the strong, feminine voice making all four of us jump.
The silence broken, people rushed to fill it. And they aimed their questions at me.
I couldn’t cope with it. I was unravelling, these questions were inane, irrelevant, I couldn’t handle them. My answers were snapped off, my tolerance extended by the situation we sat in. Eventually, the silence returned.
We arrived early.
We filtered out of the two cars, one member at a time. We stood for a fragile moment in the dirt-packed car park, and then strode off.
Dad lead – fitting given the scenario. He held mom’s hand. He wore his darkly handsome suit.
My sister, her boyfriend supporting at a brief distance followed.
Me and my brother dragged out the rear.
Shame simply flooded me. Given our location, our dress, the way we walked, every person who passed us by knew where we were going. I dared not look for the condemnation in their eyes – I was too scared of finding compassion.
We marched down the road, stopping only to wait for the traffic light. As we waited for the little red man to change his mind, as other marchers ignored him and simply walked by, as police officers broke stride only to check for cars, I realised how ironically legal our waiting was.
He changed. We walked. We turned right and marched quickly into Manukau District Court.
We found a computer screen with the fifth page of today’s court displayed. We surveyed the waiting data, finding it wanting, and waited patiently for it to change. Page one flickered into being, A brief perusal revealing yet more wasteful data.
An indefinable amount of time passed. The screen flickered again. Eagerly, our eyes rasped across the names, disappointment and frustration dulling our senses. We waited. Finally, screen three, and there, a third of the way down, our surname, dad’s name. Court Room 8.
The simple signs dictated our direction. As one, the six of us turned and headed for the stairs.
My steps rang through the vacant foyer, every second step muffled. Petrified of setting off the metal detector, I’d removed a safety-pin that had hiked the hem of my jeans off the ground. Now, the hem frayed beneath my left leg, stifling the loud clap of shoe on tile.
With each step, a small realisation whispered through me.
Whatever happened, whatever came today, I couldn’t – wouldn’t – face it with my head aimed at the ground. Doubtless, I’d cry. Doubtless, emotions would fail to be described. I couldn’t change that. But what I could change was how I stood. Was how I looked. Was how I strode.
I raised my head and rolled my shoulders, a familiar strut sliding into my steps. I straightened my lips and unclenched my fists and looked at the five people around me.
We’re all so beautifully weak.
Cracked lines of support run from member to member; a little glance here, a touch there, a sniff here, a smile there. Little ways of letting each other know “I feel it too.”
We settled onto benches beside the court room doors. And began to wait.
The sentencing was supposed to start at 9. For reasons known best as “technicalities”, it was delayed till ten. For just short of an hour, we sat on those seats and watched as the court-house filled up around us.
People passed in varying states of dress, decorum and drunkenness, the first and last seemingly synonymous. We watched in complete befuddlement as a squat little lawyer of a man stumbled by, following an ellipse only he could see as he muttered loudly about how no one ever bothered to tell him where he was meant to be. He stumbled haphazardly into a court room, then burst back out, cavorting toward some other, distant room, his mutterings profane.
Police officers bedecked in smartly useless suits appeared and huddled, forcing laughter as nervousness showed. I don’t know what they were doing, but some were young, barely new recruits. They seemed more scared than me. Lawyers dazzled by, proclaiming loudly for their customers or targets, disappearing in a swirl of black tails. An official stumped up and down the path, demanding tetchily that people remove caps and glasses.
We talked. I don’t know how, but we talked and we laughed and we turned that time from treacle to honey as it oozed by. And finally, he was summoned.
We wouldn’t have stood faster if lightning the chairs. We convened by the doors, and he turned with reddened eyes and grabbed us one by one for a hug “Just in case.”
With each hug, he left words and imprints. Mom. Sister. Me.
“Stay strong. Look after them for me.”
And I let go. A rush of anger, of hatred, of selfishness, of remembered words, of broken spirits, of defiance, of loss, of pain, of acceptance blazed through me and I turned away, knowing my mouth contorted out of sight. Why must I pay for the crimes you commit? What about me?
We walk in to a scene vaguely reminiscent of tv.
We take our seats. On the other side sit the victim and his lawyer.
My dad is angry with him. Blames him for what happened. But I’ve read his victim impact statement. I’ve stolen glances at documents secreted away. I know where blame solely lies. And I feel so sorry for him.
I’ve imagined over the past few nights what would happen when I see him. Loyalty might seem to demand aggression, a belief that his actions caused us to be here. Whilst true, his actions are a reaction. He hasn’t done this against us. He’s done this for him. And given what dad has put him through, I cannot blame him.
And as I watch his reflection in the corner of my eye, I know that I want to tell him I’m sorry. Whatever happens, I want to talk to him and tell him I am so, so, so sorry for what dad has done.
And here begins the sentencing.
God it’s tedious. TV series imply that lawyers are eloquent, smart, dazzling and loud. But this one ums more than stutterers in the rain, engages in silences that I swear are meditations and unambiguously details the fraud my father committed. He lays out, in no uncertain terms, the states legal response: for a crime of this nature: 4 to 5 years. Finally he sits down.
And now, our rebuff. A rebuff that is more hesitant, a rebuff that screws up one vital and meaningless fact, a rebuff that pleads “look not at the crime, but the bigger picture.” And he too sits down.
Behind him, before us, in his smart black suits, my father stands. He does not shake. His left hand clenches and relaxes, I see a twitch race down his right arm. Beside me, my mother sniffs, tears breaking free. I’m crying too.
The judge is a kind looking man. Headmaster, perhaps, of an old English Christian boarding house. He shuffles papers and with a posh lilt I can’t place, begins to summarise.
I don’t want to listen, I want it to be over – please let it be over, I’m so tired of waiting, I’m so tired of delays, I’m so tired of not knowing, I’m so tired of this purgatory, I’m so tired of feeling guilty for something I didn’t do – but once it’s over it can’t be changed, until it’s said anything is possible, please don’t end, keep talking, so long as you talk my father is free.
“…and, in accordance with what the Appeal Court has decided in similar cases, I must sentence you to prison. As [first lawyer] says, this should be a term of four to five years…”
Before him, the judges aid scrambles for her phone. I can’t watch. Her low voice murmurs across the room. She hangs up. A few seconds pass as the judge details what reductions he can make. There’s the sound of running footsteps, a key scraping a lock, and a door is flung open.
A policewoman bursts through. I can’t bear to look, but my soaking eyes are drawn. She is pretty. She glances rapidly around, surmises the situation and realises she disturbed the peace. Mortification reddens her face and she sinks into a seat, the handcuffs clinking merrily.
“…and so I sentence you to three years and eight months imprisonment.”
The rest is just noise.
I rise as requested. My father turns and looks my mother in the eyes and mouths “I’m sorry.” And all I can think is “I love you.”
Somehow, we’re downstairs. We’re waiting for the lawyer. We’re all crying, we’re all shocked, we’re all broken. I look up the stairs and I see the victim, laughing with his lawyer. Hot, unfair rage floods me and i blink it away. I need to talk to him. I need to say sorry.
But I need to phone Someone first. Sick and fevered, she couldn’t be with us in more than thought. I walk out to the atrium, gulping fresh air. I tap on my phone, Her blurred name appearing. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a handshake and a body move toward the stairs. I press her name and my phone freezes. Angrily, I tap it again. He’s coming down the stairs quickly, and my phone won’t connect, it won’t let me select Her name, come on you stupid thing I need to tell Her but fuck I need to talk to him.
I take a step toward the doors he’s about to walk through, my focus still on my phone, but what do I say what if he’s angry with me what if he blames me No I can’t I can’t risk it I’ll talk to him another day I need to phone Someone I need her right now and this stupid fucking phone won’t fucking connect and his hand is on my shoulder.
I don’t know what he said. I honestly do not recall it. But compassion, pain, sorrow, support blazed out of his eyes and I was humbled by this man, by this man whose wife cooked us macaroni cheese and pretended to ignore me as I surreptitiously moved my least favourite meal out of my way, who gave my dad a job on just one interview, who would come and talk to me when I visited dad at work, who made dad go home when he worked too late, this man who has been completely ruined by my father is making sure that I’m ok.
I gather my wits. I take in a breath as I see my mom stand and head toward us. I hold out my hand and I apologise for what my dad has done. I tell him how sorry I am. And then mom is there, and she’s repeating me, and he’s hugging her, and telling her how the people who knew her are thinking of her and are there to support her.
And then he is gone.
I turn and look back at my phone. My favourite name is highlighted. Finally, it calls her. It rings. I walk to a pillar. It rings again. My eyes have a puncture. It rings again. My body is shaking. It rings again. I lean against the pillar. She answers.
And I can’t say a single thing.