Harry Woodruff is sitting across from me at my table in the Sydney Free Legal Centre. His eyes are a touch too large for his gaunt, weathered face, and white stubble dusts his lined jaw like a fine coating of cigarette ash. His jacket was probably tweed once, and his tie’s the sort people wear as fancy dress nowadays – thin, with Hawaiian girls. Awful, the smell of meths ooz- ing out of a man’s pores. I’ve never got used to it.
He coughs an old man’s cough, so it’s a shock to see from the file that he’s only five years older than me. But I’ve lived in a house all my life. I’ve had a job and a family and the luck of the draw.
His voice fights the catarrh. ‘So, Mr Bartlett, what’s it mean?’ he asks, ges- turing to the creased letter flecked with innominate stains.
‘“Residuary beneficiary” means you’ve been left some money. Or property. Whatever’s left after the debts and specific testamentary dispositions.’
‘Anything that’s not been specifically earmarked for someone else.’
He pulls a rolled cigarette from behind his ear and is about to light it. ‘No smoking, Mr Woodruff,’ I say, and point to the sign on the wall, which throws in ‘No drinking’ and ‘No playing musical instruments’ for good measure.
‘Oh, don’t be so grim. And the name’s Harry. Want me to roll you one?’
‘Not right now.’ I glance again at the photocopy as I slip it onto the file. ‘So, who is she?’
Another cough as he strikes a match. ‘Who’s who?’
‘“Alice Therese Woodruff”.’
‘She’s the testator.’ He wiggles his finger, underlining the word in the air.
‘Testatrix, actually, if you want to get technical. But who is she? A spinster aunt? A cousin?’
He investigates a thread of tobacco escaping his cigarette, as he says in a non-committal tone, ‘My wife, maybe. Or my daughter.’
The words give me a jolt. Just hearing them makes his face seem differ- ent, and I can’t tell whether it’s something in him that they change, or something in me. My years here have taught me that family is the thing that makes the homeless homeless. ‘Well, presumably you can tell from the name,’ I say.
His smile is playful. ‘Both got the same name, if you want to get technical.’
I wait for more, but he’s in no hurry to explain. They never are, the older ones. The young clients – the dope-pedlars or the shoplifters or the joyrid- ers – they’re twitchy with hope of action or escape that the system hasn’t yet worn down as doggedly as water wears down stone. By Harry’s stage in the game, they go numb. Time’s their only possession.
Our stints here are a bit like casualty: you let them in, you patch them up, you send them off. Just fix their immediate legal problem as best you can, and don’t ask superfluous questions, otherwise before you know it the whole night will have gone and you’ll be none the wiser, but a lot more miserable.
The wall clock clicks its way nearer to seven p.m., and through the glass atop the partition I can see prospective clients shunting along the row of chairs to make room for new arrivals. The clatter of typewriters drifts in from down the corridor.
There’s a knock on the door and Mike Kostalidis steps in, with a young fellow in tow.
‘Got a minute?’
‘I’m just with Mr Woodruff, Mike. Can it wait?’
‘Won’t take a tick. Excuse us, Harry,’ he says, and Harry raises a finger in salute as Mike guides the boy in. ‘I wanted to introduce Neville. Just finished his articles at Showalter, Grace and Parr in Pitt Street, and he’s signed up for Thursday evenings. I’ve promised him you’re the full bot- tle on Housing Commission red tape. We’re starting him off with a few tenancy disputes.’
‘It’s not something I come across much in corporate,’ says Neville, brush- ing his hair from his eyes.
‘Not exactly something I come across in shipping arbitration, either,’ I re- ply. ‘Got to be Jacks of all trades around here. One or two of us are crimi- nal barristers, but mostly we’re solicitors: property or company or general commercial. Don’t worry, I’ll pop round later and go through things. You’ll get the hang of it.’ The two of them trundle out.
‘Sorry about that. So, what are your instructions? Have you got a bank ac- count to pay the money into?’
Harry gives a cackle, and takes a drag on his cigarette. His hands shake a little as he fishes another strand of tobacco off the end of his tongue. ‘Bank account,’ he laughs again. ‘Oh yes, and a tailor.’
‘You could open one. Depending how big the estate is.’ God knows I’ve seen enough of them get damages or a bit of workers’ comp and just piss it up against the wall. Or find the whole lot has disappeared from under their hostel mattress. ‘I can sort out a bankbook for you if you want. Or you could have the money paid into the trust account here until you get yourself sorted out. Come on, things are on the up for you.’
His jaw sets. He considers the ash accumulating at the end of his cigarette, and as he flicks it onto the crusty soil of the rubber plant beside him, he says, ‘I’ve got some “instructions” for you. Tell them they can raffle it.’
I’ve heard all sorts of things across that table since I started as a volunteer in 1959. Once a week for twenty years, I’ve heard stories of knives and burst pipes and barking dogs and head wounds. I’ve heard about evictions and betrayals and repossessions and custody disputes. But neither at that table, nor at the satinwood desk in my own office, have I ever heard any- one genuinely refuse money. ‘You might want to think it over. Could be a fortune for all you know.’
‘It probably will be.’
I look at him with a question, and he answers – ‘I didn’t always look like this.’ Then, waving his cigarette towards his chest, he says, ‘You think I’d buy this tie?’ Something in that gesture makes me wonder if the jacket, loose on his frame, might be handmade; if the fingernails, now ridged and yellow, might once have been neatly manicured. I get a sudden vision of a younger, stronger man sitting before me, upright and commanding – the opposite of a ghost. Something in his eyes addresses me, one successful man to another, just for a second. ‘Where do you think they got the money in the first place?’ He says it slowly, an actual invitation to wonder.
Where does my wife get her money, or my kids? They get it from me. And I get it from clients and they get it from customers, and with that thought, for a second the whole world seems like one vast torrent of money slosh- ing around. Except for here, this little island of the Sydney Free Legal Centre, where some chemical property in the second-hand furniture or the moribund pot plants actively repels wealth. A haven above the floodwaters of mammon.
Into the vacuum, Harry says, ‘Got a harbour view, I bet.’
‘Sorry, you’ve lost me.’
‘I’d bet five dollars you’ve got a harbour view.’
He’s right. Point Piper at home, Circular Quay at work. ‘Water gives you space. Gives you perspective,’ I say.
‘Probably worked your nuts off to get them, didn’t you? And climbed over one or two bodies along the way … Good of you to slum it here with the damned.’ There’s no bitterness in his tone, just amusement. Did Harry fall from grace because of the drink, or does he drink because of the fall from grace?
‘Is this a sermon?’ I ask, restoring a stray paperclip to its rightful place in the stack of papers.
Marjorie will be home from bridge at the Queen’s Club. The kids will be back from school or uni, and doing their study. I’m pretty sure that of all the things going through their minds at this moment, I won’t be one. And somehow that’s all right. We’re solid, secure.
There’s a tap on the glass and Jeanette, the receptionist, points at her watch then angles a thumb toward the growing row of figures on the chairs be- yond. She flashes a smile and strides away to the photocopier.
Harry does his laugh again. ‘You’ll be able to tell them all about it back in your real office, in the real world. About the old derro who’s so far gone on the drink he doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ He looks me right in the eye: ‘But I’m not drunk today, am I?’
If I had a dollar for every client who’d protested sobriety as they slid off that chair … But, despite the whiff of meths, right this minute, Harry Woodruff is as sober as I’ve seen a man.
‘You don’t have to decide this right away, you know. I can write to the solicitors and say you’re still considering; play for time while we find out how much it’s likely to be. They haven’t even applied for probate yet.’
‘No thanks,’ he says, like to an offer of tea.
‘If you don’t take it, it might end up bona vacantia – it could go to the Crown,’ I say, more forcefully than I intended.
‘What’s your name?’ he asks. ‘Bartlett.’
‘No, your first name.’ ‘Philip. Phil.’
‘No thanks, Philip. I’ve had my days of harbour views.’ He throws me a look, like he’s just flashed me.
A sound of vomiting erupts from the waiting room, and I glimpse Jeanette rushing by with a bucket and a law student, in time to catch a second bout from a woman who’s doubled over. It’s not a rare event – she might be drunk, or pregnant, or dying: plenty of our regulars are. Two of the other lawyers have emerged from their offices and someone’s got a mop. It’s under control. The queasiness that starts up in my stomach’s probably just from the smell seeping through the partition.
As Harry takes the original of the letter and folds it gently back into its creases, I wonder what memories he’s folding away with it.
‘Won’t hold you up,’ he says.
‘But don’t you at least want to know who’s died?’
‘No. Death’s a relative concept, I suppose. Besides, there are plenty of ways a life dies.’
He seems to size me up before he says, ‘You’ll find out one day.’
As he slips the letter into his inside breast pocket, I catch a glimpse of something that makes me catch my breath before I even know why. The discreet, embroidered label – ‘Partridge & Sons, Bespoke Tailors’ is un- mistakeable, and matches the one in my own jacket.
Without warning, something like a panic rises within me. His life seems full of endings; of losses – and I see mine loom up in front of me, insur- mountable, terrifying, as the accusation hits me: I have never lost anything in my life. I live in a comfortable home with a reasonable wife who still welcomes me in bed and at the breakfast table with the same unquestion- ing love she declared twenty-five years ago. My children are healthy and happy. Christ, even my parents still live in the house I grew up in on the North Shore, fit as fiddles. There’s such a long, long way to fall from hap- piness like that, with no practice along the way in how to survive the crash onto the rocks below.
The smell of sick is overwhelming now. I undo my collar button and loosen my tie a fraction. ‘Stuffy in here. Sorry about the – uh … ’ I wave vaguely toward the corridor.
Harry fumbles with his coat pocket and after a bit produces an orange, past its best, leathery and unappetising. He pierces the skin with his thumbnail so that suddenly the air is fresh and redolent, and I’m thrown like Alice in Wonderland down the tunnel of my memory – lunch boxes packed by my mother; fruit-picking as a student; the buckets of orange quarters passed around at the final whistle of the kids’ rugby or tennis matches; honeymoon near Valencia where the scent of the citrus groves wafted up to our hotel balcony as we watched the sea and the stars. My fingers can almost feel the delicate skin at the nape of Marjorie’s neck, the finest veil of perspira- tion there. Then, a lurching in my guts brings back something I’d tried to forget – that first awareness of mortality. As I snapped closed the fastening on the gold necklace I’d given my bride, the icy realisation crept through me: my time with her would end one day. I pushed it down, and got on with life. I’ve made my weekly offerings here, helping those who never had my chances, but now I see I’ve just been trying to ward off bad luck with good deeds. Inoculating my life.
No more than a second has passed, as Harry places the orange on the table and taps the side of his nose. ‘Old trick. Helps you forget, a good smell like that. Takes you back to life before the vomit.’ He slides it towards me.
‘But you could actually go back to that life!’
He looks at me with concern, and leaves enough silence to tell me there’s something I haven’t understood. Then his face is good humoured again. ‘You’ve got my instructions.’ He stands up slowly and his pocket clinks as he pats it. ‘Cocktail hour.’ His movement stirs the sick and the meth fumes and the smoke. ‘You enjoy your week.’ At the door he stops, half turns back, as his fingers stroke his pocket. ‘It’ll be all right, you know,’ he says, and I wonder whether he’s talking to himself. Then he’s gone.
As I get up to close the door, I check the queue: seventeen, now. Seventeen lives, dressed in second hand rayon and shoes that don’t fit; livers shrivel- ling, veins collapsing; hearts failing. Turning my back to them, something makes me head not to my seat, but to the client chair, still warm from Harry. I sit and gaze through the space on the other side of the desk, and wonder what Harry saw; what any of them see.
I widen the noose of my tie and gulp down air, then buzz the intercom to reception. ‘Yes, Mr Bartlett?’
‘I’ve got to leave early, Jeanette. Sorry.’ I rummage for an excuse: ‘Bug- gered up my diary – got another appointment.’
‘Oh.’ There’s a pause as I hear her flick through pages. ‘But you’re rostered on till ten.’ She lowers her voice a shade. ‘We’ve got that whole block of codgers coming in about their eviction appeal. And your four Yugoslavian families. About that dodgy car dealer down the Parramatta Road? They’re bringing an interpreter and everything.’
I turn, and over the partition I see the clients watching her, as she watches me, uncomprehending.
‘I – ’ I look again at the line of people. The woman who’s been sick is sob- bing quietly. A Vietnamese grandfather is slowly rocking. A girl not much older than my daughter is scratching her forearms and looking at the ceil- ing. Slumming it with the damned …
‘Are you all right?’ Jeanette asks.
‘Ah – fine, yes. I’m fine. Just trying to – could you send Neville around?’
A moment later, Neville appears, bearing a well-used edition of Chitty on Contract.
‘Jeanette said you wanted me?’
‘That’s right.’ My voice passes for calm. ‘I’ve got to leave early – diary mix up. Sorry to throw you in at the deep end. You run matters on your own at Showalters do you?’
‘Yes, sometimes, it depends on – ’
‘Okay. I know this is a bit of a hospital pass, but there are a couple of things that’ll need babysitting tonight. One’s a possible Section 52 and Sale of Goods Act claim about a shonky car dealer. The other’s an appeal against a decision for a bunch of Diggers who’re about to be out of house and home because of a property re-zoning near the Cross.’
He nods, his face a mixture of nerves and eagerness.
‘Just start proofing the witnesses. Get their story, check that the facts make sense. There’s an interpreter for the car dealer matter.’ I pick up the two files from the corner of the table. ‘Any questions?’
He gives a quick raise of the eyebrows. ‘I suppose I won’t know until I’ve read the files.’
Hefting the papers onto Chitty, he hugs the combined stack, and it’s like looking into a mirror, separated from another version of myself by two decades.
‘Mike’ll be here if you get into strife.’ I pat him on the shoulder. ‘You’ll be fine.’
Outside the barest breeze is stirring the hot darkness. There’s no traffic at this hour, and I’m at Bronte Beach in less than fifteen minutes. I take off my shoes and socks, and grab the towel from the back seat. The sand on my bare feet takes me back to years of bringing the kids here, juggling hand- holding and car keys and buckets and trying not to get nipped by a sand crab one or another of them’s decided to adopt. I can still see Tim, our eld- est, wide-eyed at the sensation of his two-week-old toes meeting the Pacific for the first time as we performed that vernacular Australian baptism. The look that passed between him and me and Marjorie like an electric charge: we were a family. This was our life, and I would protect it, always. We went through that initiation with each of our four. Had Harry done something similar with the Alice Therese Woodruffs? Had he believed he could protect them? Which of them had died?
Tim’s six-foot-four and a prop on the Sydney Uni firsts. Karen’s got a boy- friend who dotes on her and walks her all the way home from Med School sometimes. Only another couple of years and the twins’ll be at Uni too, with the marks to study whatever they want. An odd thought grips me: where are our babies now? In that split second I’m felled by the loss of them; the loss of Marjorie as a coltish hurdles champion; of myself, just starting out with that same blend of trepidation and eagerness I’d seen in Neville’s face.
It’s nearly ten, and the beach is swathed in blackness, the waves still kick- ing up their foam skirts as they find their way to shore by moonlight alone. The clinging heat is too much and I shed my suit coat, then my tie. Without any conscious will, a minute later I find myself heading into the water, as naked as our babies were, my clothes folded neatly on the sand. Salty tears, the first for decades, are drowned by the salt of the water as I dive under and re-emerge to swim fast freestyle, and faster, until I’ve got no breath left in me.
Around the bay, a few lights still gaze benignly – people in houses or flats with ocean views, up late, studying or fretting or making love or comfort- ing toddlers woken from bad dreams. Oblivious to the darkness pressing against the glass. ‘There are plenty of ways a life dies.’ It’s like I’ve only just noticed the fine print in a familiar contract: I’ve been losing bits of my life quietly all these years – worried about falling off a cliff when all the time the cliff was falling into the sea.
There’s not another soul around. The water against my skin strips away a last layer inside me and I find myself sobbing, howling with pain – the pain of I don’t know what. That those babies, that their young father, are gone forever? That to grow, some part of you has to die? That one day there’ll be a letter from the doctor’s surgery or a ring on the door bell and it’ll be bad news. The worst news, eventually.
A wave slaps the back of my head – thwack – and down I go, tumbled over and over like seaweed and there’s water up my nose and down my throat and my face slams down against the sand that scrapes it as I’m dumped back on the shore, where I lie, retching up sea water and spitting out sand until I work out which way is up. In the chaos it comes to me: he’s sur- vived his endings, Harry. He’s survived his fall, even been liberated by it, somehow.
Every nerve is awake. Every inch of me is in touch with air or water or sand and my heart’s thudding not with the pain but with – the miracle of it. The miracle of everything. I let the waves wash over and away, over and away, over and away, knowing it’s fractionally different water touching a fractionally different person with every passing second.
It’s after midnight when I get back to the Legal Centre, long since shut up. I unlock the door and the fluorescent strip awakes with a buzz as I make my way to my office. My bare feet make no sound on the holey lino, and my wet hair sprinkles droplets as I pull my chair in to the desk.
In front of me, neatly stacked, and bound with their usual pink tape, are the files I gave to Neville, topped with a hand-written note:
Files returned herewith. All ok. Attendance notes done, and rough draft proofs in for typing in the morning. Have to head off now – late for wedding planning and don’t want to be in bad books. Thanks for the chal- lenge. Look forward to seeing you next week.
I undo the tape and skim the file notes. He’s done an impressive job.
On the other side of the desk sits the Woodruff file, still with the orange on it. I open the file, take up the Dictaphone and begin: ‘This is a tape from Phil. It’s a letter on the Woodruff matter. It’s to Messrs Parfitt, Parfitt & Delaney. Your ref. AAD/ py, Our ref PMB/ HW. Letter begins “Dear Sirs, Re The Estate of the Late Alice Therese Woodruff.”’ I break off, and pick up the orange, tracing my own thumbnail over the scar left by Harry’s. His smile comes back to me as I peel the fruit, breathing in the reassuring tang.