Melbourne’s Daughter

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter

(Dylan Thomas)
The newspaper article was short, buried at the bottom of an inner page: Man Sought in Child Death was the headline. Ambulance officers were called to attend an infant who was not breathing. They found injuries described as Non Accidental. They detected a feathery heartbeat and commenced resuscitation and brought the baby to hospital.
Following further treatment the baby underwent scans of the brain. These demonstrated Injury Incompatible with Life. Police wished to interview a man in connection with the matter. 
Nearly forty years ago I became intimately familiar with that hospital. At the age of fifteen months our youngest child was treated there for Aplastic Anaemia. I had learned enough of this invariably fatal disease at medical school to dread it. Over three miraculous days and three intense nights nurses and doctors worked on our infant as if she were their own. Three days following her admission our baby was home again, her condition in spontaneous remission. It never recurred.
I witnessed at that time what a friend describes as the operation of ‘an edge’. He says a hospital like that is a line where the worst and the best meet and rub up against each other. The worst, he suggests, is the suffering or death or loss of a child; the best is the application of skill and care and discipline in opposing the worst. The line where the best strains against the worst is a hospital like this one. My friend describes this as ‘OUR best’. By extension the loss or suffering of the child is OUR worst. I mean we are all implicated.

 
What must we learn from those pregnant expressions: ‘Non Accidental Injury’ and ‘Injury Incompatible with Life’? Horribly intrigued I sought more news in the next day’s paper. I found nothing. For the first time in my life I went to the news on-line. I googled ‘non-accidental injury to baby’. Straight away I was sorry I had done so. Case after case, headline after headline, BABY AFTER BABY, the web told of the slaughter of our very young in Australia. RecoiIing, I quickly ungoogled. A phrase from the biblical book of Numbers came to me – ‘a land that devours its children.’
Another friend is a senior doctor at that same hospital. He is the person with whom the buck stops, it is he who has to confront the adults in whose watch a non-accidental injury has taken place. Too often the x-rays show the many non-accidental fractures that have healed or half-healed or never healed in a baby’s short tenure. He sees the scans that show the brain bruised and bleeding from multiple sites. Calmly, civilly, he must direct questions to the adults. He says, ‘Your baby has been injured in ways that cannot occur by accident. Can you explain the injury to me?’ The adult partnership fissures along one of many fault lines, the truth emerges. And the truth is braided of many rotten strands. The perpetrator – sometimes more than one perpetrator – is almost never the simple monster we like to imagine. The perpetrator too often had himself been monstered – his life fractured, his brain contused by one evil or by another or by many.
I read, over the days that followed, a scattering of further details, most of them horrible beyond my imagining. And finally, this: the injuries being incompatible with life, the parent of the child had agreed the doctors should turn off the machines. But before that, she donated the baby’s organs. Injuries incompatible abruptly became compatible with saving half a dozen young lives.

 
I described babies who are killed as OUR babies. I felt, as I read Helen Garner’s, ‘This House of Grief’ that the three murdered boys were in a real sense Garner’s children, they were mine, they were all our children. And in my moments of google horror I felt the same shock of personal responsibility.

In the small South Australian town of Penola people built and tend a park to remember their babies lost.

This House of Grief – by Helen Garner, A Review.

Helen Garner saw it on the TV news. Night. Low Foliage. Water, misty and black. Blurred lights, a chopper. Men in high-vis and helmets. Something very bad here. Something frightful.

It was truly very bad. A man had driven his car into a dam. He escaped from the car but his three small sons drowned. The man was charged with their murder and over the following eight years Garner attended the man’s exhaustive legal trials. She exhausted herself in the process of moral exploration of territory that is indeed, ‘dark, misty, black and blurred.’ Reading Garner’s ‘This House of Grief’ can exhaust a reader in turn.

Three hundred pages of scrupulous enquiry end with the author reflecting: ‘When I let myself think of Jai, Tyler and Bailey lying in their quiet cemetery…I imagine the possessive rage of their families: You never knew them. You never even saw them. How dare you talk about your “grief?”
But no other word will do. Every stranger grieves for them. Every stranger’s heart is broken. The children’s fate is our legitimate concern. They are ours to mourn. They belong to all of us now.’

Garner takes the deaths of the three children personally as if she were herself involved. She seeks to know whether they died by grievous mischance or by human intent. She needs to understand. She begs of fate, of the universe, ‘Oh Lord, let this be an accident.’ For us her readers – we who elect to follow her into this frightful something – Helen Garner attends the hearings as our emissary to that house of grief. We too need to know, we too seek to understand; the three lost boys are ‘our’ lost children.

Garner quotes three epigrams, each a succinct cry from a previous emissary, each a pair of hands flung upward in despair over the futility of the quest to comprehend.

He can’t possibly have done it. But there’s no other explanation.

There is no explanation of the death of children that is acceptable.

…life is lived on two levels: one in our awareness and the other only inferable…from inexplicable behavior.

On what account are Garner’s thoughts and reactions, naked here on page after page, a matter for a reader’s interest or a reviewer’s remark? What access has the reader to her deeps, her angst? Garner, the person on the page, our emissary, attends a day of ravaging evidence; afterwards she makes her way, blindly, solitary, to a bar for a vodka. On other occasions she resorts to magical thinking: If only Farquharson could be found not guilty, then the boys would not be dead…Garner pictures them in their domestic vitality, playing footy, watching cartoons, running with arms open for a cuddle. The only way I could bear it was to picture the boys as water creatures: three silvery naked little sprites,…who slithered through a crack and …sped away together.
Then, haunted by the chill of reality, she races homeward in her mind, to haul my grandsons …from their Lego and their light sabres, to squeeze them …until they squirmed. Young boys! How can such wild vital creatures die? How can this hilarious sweetness …be snuffed out?

And again, this longer account of the observer’s migratory flight of feeling: When I got home I sat on the back verandah mumbling to myself, sick at heart. My third grandchild came wandering around the house. He approached me without speaking, turned his back, and stood waiting to be picked up. I lifted him onto my lap. He was only a few months younger than Bailey Farquharson had been when he drowned. For a while the little boy sat on my knee. He relaxed his spine against my chest. Together we listened to the clatter of the high palm fronds, the wail of a distant siren. He glanced up sharply when a flight of lorikeets swerved chattering across the garden. Then he spread his right hand like fan, inserted a delicate thumb into his mouth, and tucked his head under my chin.

And yet only two hours later when he and his four-year-old brother disobeyed me… and went crashing and yelling down the hall to the kitchen like maniacs, rage blinded me. I ran after them, grabbed the nearest arm, and yanked its owner round in a curve. Before I could land a blow I got a grip on myself. The boys stood frozen in attitudes of flight. Nobody spoke. In a cold sweat I leaned against the cupboard door and took some trembling breaths.

Here Garner gives us her brittleness, her sense of near disintegration, her proximity in extremis to harming loved ones in her care; and subtly too, the boys’ “attitudes of frozen flight” recall the postures of failed flight of the boys in the drowned car.

There is a reticence, a holding back at certain points, a refusal to comment that shouts, no, screams, in unexpressed horror. Thus: The men from Major Collision looked into the car before they opened it to drain the water. Ten-year-old Jai was lying face down across the front seats with his head towards the driver’s door…
Seven-year-old Tyler lay on his right side behind the driver’s seat. His head was near the door and his legs were between the two front seats. Two-year-old Bailey was lying across the top of the baby seat, facing rearwards and still tangled in his safety harness.

It is not until the following page that Garner reveals the killer datum: all three seatbelts were unbuckled. It is this crushing fact that tells us that a child – or two children – struggled. It is this, delayed, that a writer striving for dramatic effect might have juxtaposed earlier and quite unbearably with those postures. As it is, the bodies lie diagonally, piercing my composure. I too need recourse to slithering fishes or to vodka or to clutching hard my own brood of near ten-year-old grandboys.

***

Writing to a friend some weeks following release of the book – a year or more I guess after the trial and the appeal and the retrial and the application to the High Court – after all had ended, Helen Garner said: “This is what I’ve learned from the last seven or eight years: ‘We are small. We are weak. We are mortal’… but I think I knew that already.”

After all had ended it had not ended at all.This House of Grief