It’s a quarter to six in the morning, no pale light yet over the horizon. It’s desert cold. Inside, Matt flips a final time through worn affidavits, making sure he also has the clean originals, putting them in a shabby green plastic folder. His dinosaur PC sits on the pouffe in the lounge room in front of the couch, surrounded by USB sticks and legal aid business cards, papers and cigarette ash on the mantle. Matt has no legal representation, and his lounge room is his filing cabinet.Asmall, yellow
breach of bail notice sits on the floor. His current ex-wife is claiming he called her at work, pretended to be a woman, and demanded to see his son, in breach of court order. His phone records say otherwise. It was a small win, and his only so far.
TheAustralian Bureau of Statistics says that around six men a day die by suicide. It has been estimated that about one a day are men who, through relationship breakdown and divorce, have been separated from their children.
Matt hasn’t seen his sonThomas in months.
After taking a final drag, Matt gets up and goes to make a final cup of tea.Atowel lies flat over the kitchen island with the iron on top. Next to it, weak incandescent light falls a on the box of family pictures.
When Matt was nineteen, his girlfriend Cindy got pregnant.They got married, and the family moved to Broken Hill, about three hours out of Mildura, where Matt got landscaping work. First Aaron came along, then Clare, then Mark.
When the kids got older, and Matt was a little over thirty, he knew that he wanted to start over again. He felt like he’d missed out on his youth, and though he loved Cindy and the kids, Matt hadn’t feel the same about his wife for a while.They divorced amicably; now Matt sometimes stays over at Cindy’s house when he’s visitingBroken Hill.
Matt came to Mildura for work, three months ago.There isn’t any need for him to be in
Broken Hill, if he can’t see Thomas, his son from his second marriage.And he needs the money for court.
Matt’s done a lot of jobs, mostly to do with landscape gardening, which he learned as a trade from his father in the western suburbs of Sydney. He has worked with C-class prisoners at Broken Hill jail, teaching the inmates permaculture; gardening from seedling to plate. He created gardens and landscapes around anAboriginal retirement home, using bush tucker plants and tying
in the garden with local culture – it ended up being one of the only government-funded projects in that community that wasn’t later vandalised.
On the bench in the kitchen is a picture of Matt, Thomas and his ex’s other children, fishing, zinc all over their faces. It’s one of Matt’s only pictures of himself –the rest are of his children: yabbying off a house boat, dressed in wedding clothes, riding motorbikes. There’s a book full of pictures ofThomas on the bedside table in his bedroom, but Matt usually sleeps on the couch.
Last night was a late one for aTuesday atThe CiderTree. Matt had cleaned and locked up, throwing out the friendly regulars at 1.30am. Home by 2am, he’d had a few cans to drown out the work, and was asleep half-an-hour later. His alarm had gone off at 5am.
Now, headlights blare through the gaps in the venetian blinds.
‘Dave doesn’t like to be late,’Matt says, and makes for the door.
Matt apologises for not giving me the front seat. It’s a bit awkward; he doesn’t see Dave much, and they were expecting a boys’road trip. Dave owns a music event company in Mildura, and is scouting the terrain for a new venue inThe Hill. He has an ex-wife and two older children, plus a new wife — twenty years younger — with a baby on the way.
‘I paid child support — every cent of it,’says Dave. ‘It’s about shoes on my kids’feet, mate. If I pay $150 a week, and my ex spends $150 on her own shoes, who am I to argue? How she spends the money is up to her.’
Matt lost his license for DUI a year ago and relies on friends and his family for lifts to Broken Hill, where he has court ordered visitations with his son. Most weekends, when he drives out for visitations, his ex-wife – the woman he married after Cindy, and the mother of Thomas – doesn’t respond to his calls, and he drives back again.
The ute pulls out of Mildura, through Dareton andWentworth past theAboriginal communities, and onto the long, straight stretch of red nothing towards the mining town, where he will appear via video link-up at the Broken Hill Federal Circuit Court.
Broken Hill is red and dry.When we arrive, it’s less than an hour before Matt’s hearing, but he takes Dave up to a spot he knows, where the old mining drills and tanks silently rust above Argent Street, a picturesque thing in the midst of a rock hard town.The tanks stand ten metres above us, winning the war of time and decay.What paint was there has gone, and the cracks are only superficial, stamped in the fractal patterns of drought on the land further out.
Matt isn’t great with spelling and punctuation, or with English in general. I’m good at it. A friend had called me in Strathalbyn, chatting about her latest nights out.We were missing each other. She mentioned that she’d seen Matt, and knew he was struggling to write his court documents. She was thinking of helping him out. I knew that she wouldn’t get around to it. I thought of the words, and the legal language. I loved that stuff.
I’d called Matt andasked him what he thought of having some help.
‘It’d be good to see ya,’he’d said.
I’d driven through the neat, clean green paddocks of SouthAustralia and back through the dry red dirt, listening to the Swans match on the radio. I got back just in time to see them lose to Richmond. It was good to see Matt.
OnWednesday andThursday, I’d spent most of my time writing affidavits and helping with court orders, Matt serving tourists from behind the bar while I typed up what he wanted to say, putting it in full sentences, with full stops. He had his blank, affable work face on, occasionally taking his glasses from the top of his head to his nose and looking over my shoulder. Matt’s ex-wife’s affidavit was longer than suggested by the courts — 85 paragraphs — full of words like ‘harassment’and a jungle of ‘he said, she said,’stuff — mostly ‘he said’.
The affidavits were hard to read. Matt was reluctant to have me read them, although he handed everything over.
‘You’ll think differently about me,’he’d said.
I did, but I put the doubt aside. Doubt would be something that would
follow Matt for the rest of his life, regardless of truth and lies; I wouldn’t contribute. Matt’s ex has claimed that Matt is a danger to his three year old son,Thomas, due to one of
these incidents that didn’t occur — the one in which Matt, who was with his son and family at the time, apparently stalked her and her father in his car, swerving at them like a madman and
calling them names out the window. It sounds ridiculous. It’s one of sixty or so similar claims. Inconsistencies are strewn through the accounts without check. But they will be taken into account. Since the change in legislation from the Rudd/Gillard government, there is little if any penalty for making false claims in affidavit.
Still, I feel a rock in my stomach. I’m not sure if it’s for Matt, or for the part of me that knows you can never know any relationship’s full story.
Matt’s ex has used the swerving car claim to file an intervention order on him. Matt has had to plead not guilty to all charges in another court.
His lawyer quoted him $12,000. It’s been more than that.
He peers at the screen, explaining the incidents to me. I swallow down a knot between questions. Did you say that?What words did you use?Are you sure you weren’t there?Are you really sure? I ask question after question, trying to break the stories down into usable parts. It’s like trying to smooth out tiny EFTPOS from the bottom of an unused pocket.
‘I wasn’t…’. He makes an indecipherable muttering sound as he thinks. ‘On that day, what she’s saying I run her off the road, I was with me family, waiting to pick upThomas.’He scans what I’m writing, reading intently, pushing down his glasses. ‘Yeah.That’s good.You’re clever.’
I push down a rush of pride, and keep typing.
On theThursday, I get through to a free legal service, and plead Matt’s case. Court is on
Monday; they make his call a priority.We sit and wait at the bar, while he fills and dries glasses.
The call comes through half an hour later. I answer awkwardly, hesitating to explain my role.
‘I’ll have to speak to Matt,’says the lawyer. I can hear the slim grey pantsuit and straightened honey blonde hair on the other end of the line. Matt takes the phone.We go outside to the smoking area and he listens and makes murmuring sounds, between drags. I point to a dot point list of questions. Matt peers at my computer, trying to explain the facts, making false starts. His chronology scattered. He mumbles. He looks at me.
‘I’ll pass you over to Bec,’he says. I put the phone on speaker. I ask questions on his behalf. I hear her furrowed brow, her hesitation, as she starts to understand how little Matt knows about the process.
‘Just make it simple,’she says. She takes the scraps of our conversation and makes them into a clear, concise document in her mind. Gives us headings like, Failure to Facilitate a Relationship
withThe Child, and Safety Concerns. ‘She’s shooting herself in the foot.You’re being reasonable — keep doing that.You don’t need to respond to all the claims she’s making. Just let her do what she’s doing, and you’ll look good in court,’she says, carefully. It’s the first time a lawyer has said anything positive.
I ask my final question. One of Matt’s ex’s relatives used to preside over the court.Will that be a problem?
The lawyer is quiet for too long.
‘I’d like to say… that it’s not going to matter. But that’s not really how the system works. Just… be careful,’she says.
Matt is lighter as he heads back to the bar.
On Friday, we file the affidavits and response orders. I sit at the computer and type like a demon. I know all of Matt’s relatives and his partner’s dates of birth by heart. Matt doesn’t have money in a credit card — just cash. He calls Cindy, and we punch her credit card details into the system to pay the court fee.We upload with one minute to spare.
Back at the front desk of the Broken Hill court, the registrar, Bobby, crumples her forehead. Matt knows her from coaching her sons in the local football team. She knows Matt’s older sons by name; both have had interest from Hawthorn Football Club,.
‘We don’t have any video link-up scheduled at all, Matt. I think it looks like it was supposed to be just a phone call,’she says. Matt looks at her blankly.
‘The judge told me it would be video link-up from here,’he says, shuffling his feet in his good shoes.
‘I can find a room, for you,’she says. ‘I think there’s one we’re not using. It’s even got a heater,’she smiles.
Bobby wrinkles her brow. ‘I’ll call her lawyer. She’s around. She’ll know all the details,’she says. She goes to the phone. I can’t think of anything worse. I take a seat at one of the chairs at the back of the small space. I hesitate to have her acknowledge that I’m here. Matt looks stoney faced.
Matt turns aside, laughing oddly. ‘I could be in Mildura, in my pyjamas,’he says.
His ex-partner’s lawyer slides down to reception. She is thin and blonde, dressed in a long black coat and black boots. She turns her body toward the people behind the desk while she’s talking to Matt, shuffles through some papers, and serves Matt with an affidavit.
‘This is the third time her lawyer has filed me with an affidavit on the day of court,’Matt says to Bobby.
The lawyer holds back a patronising tone through tight lips. ‘Well, you can take that up with the judge, Mr Richards, if you wish,’she says. ‘If you wanted a video link-up, the onus was on you to arrange it.’She leaves through the saloon doors, lemon faced.
We take the only two seats in the boxy waiting room, and then decide to go out for a smoke. Bobby puts us in the office of the head prosecutor. Matt sits in the his chair, opposite two others on the other side.
‘Seat of power!’he says, laughing too loud.Arranging his papers.
We have waited almost three hours for a phone call. I wonder about what picture the judge can possibly have of Matt, when she can’t see him.
I write in capital letters on my notepad, ‘CALM DOWN’, and, ‘DON’TTRYTO BE FUNNY.’I hold it up. He laughs.
‘Just in case,’I say.
Matt has appeared before a judge before.When he was nineteen and still working for his dad’s landscaping business, spending his spare time surfing and smoking dope, he was overseeing workers much older than he was. One day, after work, at a pub in town, two employees, one very
tall and one very short, got on each other’s nerves.At some point they took it outside. Matt went out to break it up, getting in between them. Suddenly there were twenty guys out there. Someone in a leather jacket grabbed Matt by the scruff and Matt leaned back and swung.
‘Best punch I’ve thrown in my life,’Matt says. ‘Landed square on the jaw.Too bad it was a plain clothes copper. I looked up, and the police cars were everywhere. ‘F***,’he said.
Matt and several others were charged with offensive language to a police officer.As his first offence, Matt probably would have gotten off with a warning.
He chuckles. ’The judge said, “What do you have to say for yourself, Mr Richards?” So I went the smart arse option, didn’t I? “Well, your honour — I would suggest that if police officers don’t want to hear that kind of language, they don’t hang around pubs at one o’clock in the morning!” Matt erupts into laughter. He has a cute, boyish laugh. “The judge smiled, but yeah. Bang. $250 fine.’
It was around that time that Cindy told Matt she was pregnant.
‘The dayAaron was born, I gave it up smoking weed. It was easy.There’s just this feeling of responsibility.’
Matt and Cindy’s children have given them two grandchildren inApril this year. He visits, fawning over the babies. His grandson is asleep in a patch of sunlight dappled by a camellia bush outside. He can’t resist poking Lincoln with his toe before he leaves, so he can have a hold.
‘Da-aad!’his daughter scolds, shaking her head.
Around babies, Matt is insufferable. He’s the most maternal man I’ve ever met.
After his breakup, Matt started a new relationship. He and his partner were together eleven years, and in the last three, babyThomas was a welcome surprise. But something went wrong. I ask Matt what. He says he doesn’t know.
His partner started seeing other men, some of whom she took drugs with. Matt was in the coast, setting up a house, where they had planned to move. Matt’s always wanted to live near the coast.
She left with the kids. Matt didn’t know where.
When he talks about it, Matt brings his fingers up to his eyes, tears welling on his lower lids quicker than he can wipe them away.When I spoke to him the first time, at the Sandbar, it was the same.
I look at him across the table. He has his reading glasses on, and seems more calm than I have ever seen him over the last few weeks.
I hang on to my scribbled placard, just in case. I don’t think Matt would kill himself.
I think about all the others I’ve interviewed. Mothers who’ve lost their sons, partners who had lost their soul mates.
Again and again, two things, they say.
I’m so angry — it’s the cowards’way out, isn’t it?
There was just no warning. No one saw it coming. He seemed like he had it all together, and then this…
We wait for the phone to ring.
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