With me, Manfred Clootie, it’s all monologue; no matter how many narrators poke their chattering heads through holes in the wallpaper, there’s really only one. And only one time: this steaming present with its stinks and blinding vapours. I may disappear into fictional times that we call “The Thirties”, “The Forties”, “The Nows”, “The Thens”, but it’s all one temporal haggis that needs to be eaten as soon as it’s piped in or . . .
Later that day in Melbourne’s hopeless winter
’Tis the year’s midnight and it is the day’s.
So now I’m caught like a fish, hauled out wriggling and bashed senseless. Well, not quite. The police were quite civilised gentlemen really. I can’t remember their names, but then I never could. Any police I ever dealt with seemed to be the same pair, always a couple. It doesn’t take more than two to bring me down. I’ll call them Garbutt and Heen. The earliest G & H’s would be old men now, older than I am, perhaps a good deal deader than I am.
They caught me in one of the lanes of the great queen’s market – no, not THE queen; I mean the one who died about thirty-five years before I was born – .
The Queen Victoria Market, centred in Melbourne (a city named to honour one of Queen Victoria’s prime ministers), capital of the sovereign state of Victoria, which in turn was named after the lady herself (this is getting to be a great confusion), was no place for a for a thief to be plying his trade, especially one who had lost his skills.
That monstrous rat’s nest of commerce, where for months I’d made my living by stealing merchandise and flogging it, not to the highest but to any bidder, ought to be avoided by all those simple souls who like the idea of converting other people’s property to their own without first asking. The great thing about markets generally is that you can steal food as well as saleable merchandise, which I did. But then I did something that in my heyday I never did: I got over-confident and careless. (Word-obsessed as ever, I’m now wondering exactly what a heyday is. Turn to the great Oxford English Dictionary and find the answer: a high day, the best of times.)
Yet it may not have been over-confidence that got me snared: it could just as probably have been those ancient monarchists who named the state, the capital and that damned market. Think of this huge, sprawling town. How many streets, parks, lakes (well, at least one lake) – how many are named after . . . Her? And members of her family? And her henchmen in Westminster?
Their ghosts haunt the state, the city and the market, and they are malevolent entities who whisper in the ears of passing policemen: “There! There goes a republican . . . oh, and by the way, he’s a thief.”
In court I rated not a judge but merely the lowest level of magistrate – which was good because judges are so . . . exalted, whereas magistrates . . . ah, well.
I’m cold and depressed. It’s 2 am and I’m under orders by the court to remember.
I certainly remember what the Madge said:
“If you were a younger man,” said he, “a custodial sentence would be appropriate, but, as matters stand, you would probably find ways to spend your time in the prison infirmary, which would be a heavy burden on the state. If you were even a little younger you’d be doing community service. Fining you, of course, would be a waste of time; you’d steal to pay it.”
I had to agree with him. I don’t know how magistrates are generated these days. I suppose he was a JP, perhaps a retired shopkeeper who had in his time suffered from too many visits from shoplifters. He proved to me that such men do in fact say, “harrumph!”
This old man (actually he was young enough to be my son) sentenced me to report on myself, to report to him in detail. I was to write out a kind of confession, not as a punishment exercise but as a means of revealing to myself my own moral inadequacies.
The Madge said, “Do you understand?”
“I understand the task,” I said. “It’s the purpose that I don’t quite get.”
“Reformation by confession,” he said.
“Oh, does that work?”
“I don’t know. I never tried it before.”
I made one last attempt to escape. I held up my hands and let them droop. I decided not to moan with pain.
“I can no longer write,” I said. “It’s arthritis, Your Honour.”
“You’re not supposed to call me that,” he said.
“Oh, sorry, My Lord.”
He sighed deeply and said, “I’m sure the court can provide you with writing materials that won’t cause too much torment. Can you use a computer?”
He pronounced the word “computer” as if it were a word new to me, but I had been scarcely more than fifty when I stole my first Macintosh and could probably find my way through a digital maze much better than he could.
I gave in. After all, I was free. Another magistrate might have banged me up. I agreed to send regular reports to this unusual magistrate and to regard myself as “bonded”. Too many missed report dates and the bond would be declared broken. In that case I’d be hauled back to court and given a good kicking, or whatever it is they do to bond-breakers.
So here ends my speaking in my own tongue. From now on, I write for the Madge. And I call on my reporters, whose scribbles fill boxes in what used to be my “Aunt” Lydia’s house. As most of them are now dead, I can speak (or transcribe) freely, which is the most restful way of confessing. And now . . .
Well, there is more, but it takes some finding.