Evil is not an Ikea purchase. Outside fiction, it only comes in bits which can’t be assembled to form a neat, recognisable shape. It has shape, but you have to be as far back as, say, God to see it. That’s the problem with the commodity called Evil.
We know the worst has been done, we know who did it. We know it may be repeated, because, as the French say, he who has drunk will drink. We know that those who have taken a radical shortcut to satisfaction will never again prefer a long way. So we know the real danger posed by the successful perpetrator of a profitable, wicked deed.
What do we do, knowing so much? As long as he remains unapprehended by the law, we acknowledge, accept, serve, employ the perpetrator. We share neighbourhood, work, transport, co-operative effort and even celebration with the perpetrator, even if we are shunning him to a degree. That is because we are equipped to deal with facets of people, not with a final portrait or rounded narrative.
We read fiction – but we live life, alert to each one’s usefulness, each one’s role. We find aspects, compartments of the perpetrator which are relevant to our need or mood. The known but unproven swindler or poisoner is also a customer, a client, a patient, someone with something we need. Could there even be a strength, a potency, which we respect, if only unconsciously? We hope not – but wish more evolution to our species.
What else should we do? It’s not that we don’t know, it’s not that we forgive; but for all the evil in a world, things have to go one functioning. Sorry.
A young lawyer, early in his career, will encounter one such fragment of Evil, a very typical one, at social events. It’s a natural trial, part of his final education, helping to form the evasive, cold mind he will wield as an effective practitioner, however honest.
Someone is extra attentive to him at a party. How’s your drink? Top-up? Then the casual question: If so-and-so should pass away – which God forbid! – what might be the case with the property, insurances, money, so one can be sure that so-and-so’s wishes and interests are respected…?
With luck, our young lawyer has already learned to praise the competence of a certain associate who specialises in probate. He offers to arrange an appointment with the specialist. Now, the merely social questioner, who has been counting on our lawyer’s inexperience, is not interested in paying for advice, or in making any overt inquiries which may be recorded or remembered. The subject will be dropped, the attention less flattering. Of course, if the young lawyer has had a few drinks, has not yet learned the necessary discretion and its commercial advantages, he may very well respond to the questioner, who will remain most attentive, flatteringly so. One more drink?
Whatever his response, the young lawyer has glimpsed one of the commonest fragments of Evil: the covetous legal probe, masked as concern for a well off relative. Is there any chance of connecting that brief social conversation with anything else? It will match later events and behaviour, yes, but will there be clear connections, like with an Ikea purchase?
To change metaphors, Evil goes mincingly and on tippy-toe, in and out of shadows, its path uncertain. But you know it, nonetheless. It has its smell, its match-ups, its patterns.
I was living in Banks Road, in one of the many high-rises which line the park side. A friend lived opposite, in an old semi-detached home. There were no buildings above three levels on his side, because it was adjacent to the racecourse. Exposure to such things as sporting arenas and racecourses was once a bar to approval of high-rise. All major sport was pay-to-view, back when a horse race was the only thing that mattered over a Spring weekend. So a nice strip of old Sydney had been preserved, not by Conservation but by fear of binoculars.
For many decades, the graceful old dwellings were little more than slums, as post-war Australians sought the outer fringes to raise their three child families in space and prosperity. Banks Road was where you parked a car to attend the races.
By the eighties, people had already worked out that such homes would only increase in value, and that they were worthy of renovation and speculation directed at the new urbanites. Some, consisting of two or even three levels, were divided into strata units.
My friend, an older Italian, had converted his three level home to three such units, keeping the basement for himself. He was the earthy type of paisan, with not enough earth to hand. To compensate, he raised Cattleya orchids in a little sun-trap at the back of his home, all the while cursing the mildews endemic to the enormous sandy basin which was the racecourse’s natural geography. One could drain a swamp perfectly for horses to race – but a grower of precious Cattleya orchids could still perceive swampiness.
When there was a flowering, my friend would alert me, and I would visit him out the back of his home, in a cramped hothouse between his laundry and the strata garbage area…
I’m doing it! I’m trying to make a continuous narrative! Let’s get this yarn into fragments, because that’s all the consistency it can have. Main point of the above: Those houses were worth a lot.
Standing outside my friend’s hothouse, one had a view of the back entrance to the adjacent building: a sturdy old three-level affair which had spent time as a flophouse but was now a single large home again, ripe for renovation. The owner, whom I had encountered about the neighbourhood, was a divorced woman, vaguely pretty but now thickening, greying, with that scruffy-chic look of certain eastern suburbs matrons. She was anxiously pleasant at times, at other times strained and even severe. The property was from old family money, not from her marriage.
As I stood with my friend, she entered through her back gate in company with a considerably younger man. He was lean, with one of those short-clipped beards that are almost a mask, creeping up to the cheekbones and below the jaws. The couple’s hands were clasped in a way that one sees with young people who are practising being lovers or older people straining to be lovers. The chemistry is forced.
We greeted the lady as she reached her back steps, still locked on to the stranger, who showed his teeth in a tight smile and nodded vaguely toward us. She seemed eager to pause and do introductions. One could tell she was pleased by this little encounter and the opportunity to advertise her new affection.
After introductions, with the stranger still baring his teeth and nodding, she flashed a ring, as a young girl might, and emitted a giggle – as a young girl might.
The two of them were soon to marry, she announced with mock confidentiality. We congratulated the couple, forcing ourselves to jollity.
After they were gone, I asked a few questions of my friend. What did he know of the stranger? How long had he been on the scene? I learned that he was some kind of yoga teacher who was establishing one of the wilderness adventure businesses then becoming fashionable. The relationship was fairly new.
As to my orchid loving friend’s sole opinion on the marriage:
“She’s got a big house, n’è vero?”
A year later, I had moved on to a north side address.
I was in the city, checking out the Technical Book Shop. It took me a while to recognise the lean man with the mask of dark beard crawling to his cheekbones. Then I recalled.
He caught me looking at him, but appeared not to recognise me. Yet it was not long till he had moved away from the shelves where he had been standing, and was browsing intently elsewhere – as if the first spot had been of less interest. At last, he proceeded to the till with some purchases.
As he stood there, he again glanced over at me, as if there was, indeed, some recognition.
That was all, or nearly all. I waited for him to be served and to leave, then idly wandered to the area of the store where I had first noticed the man. It was the Law, Property and Investment section. Or something of that nature. Why would I remember exactly?
Little to tell, really. This occurred a couple of years further on.
When the Regent Hotel was new, it was the place to impress at lunch. I happened to be there with a client I was hoping to impress.
At another table sat the bearded man, looking much the same. He was with a woman, not the one from Banks Road, and they were holding hands across the table with eyes locked. She was older, dressed eccentrically in that combination of deep purple, violet and lavender that somehow identifies unmarried women after a certain age. She was clearly flattered by his attentiveness, as he seemed to wait on each word from her lips.
So…he had not married the lady from Banks Road? Or…
Shortly after that lunch I got a call from my Italian friend, whom I had not seen for a few years. What better time to invite me for for a wine than when his cattleya mendelii were flowering?
We were standing outside his hothouse after viewing of the orchids, since too many bodies inside for too long were yet another mildew or disease hazard.
The bearded man arrived alone through his back gate. He saw us as he proceeded up the back steps into his house, but acknowledgement was chilly on both sides.
“So, he did marry the lady?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“It’s just that I saw him a while back with a different woman. And they were a definite couple.”
“Sure. Why not? The other one’s dead. Nice lady. Dead.”
“Dead! The woman who owned the house? The one he married? How?”
“Remember him talking big about an adventure business in the works? To show her all about it, the bludger takes the lady down the bloody Shoalhaven River, on a rubber raft. Know the Shoalhaven? Bad gorge, mate. You don’t go down there. Anyway, the lady falls out of the raft, catches her neck in the fork of a big branch. Dead! Now this rooster doesn’t need a business or job…if he ever had one.”
“I’m just filling you in on what you can see. Big house, money…all for him. Lucky, n’è vero?”
Just speculation. A couple of years later on, a man with the same name – not a common one – was in the news briefly. He, or his “foundation”, had inherited the property of a deceased lady whom he had been instructing in meditation and naturopathy. It would appear that he had advised her against medical treatments for her cancer, urging her to rely on expensive therapies of his own choosing. Her family had been outraged, there was a rift, her will was altered very thoroughly in favour of the man’s “foundation”…
I thought of the woman in the Regent Hotel…
No need to think it was her. In fact, no need to think it was the same man. Just the same name, maybe.
Just fragments. The trouble is, I know. I’ve looked hard at this man a few times, and a couple of times he’s returned my gaze. And I just know, from that, and from the fragments. I know!
Worse: Is there some potency in him, which I respect in a dark, inherited way – a way I can’t help? I can only hope not, and yet…
In chaotic circumstances, you have to fit the head of a person you know intimately to the fork of a branch, then pull and pull till you are sure the person is dead. There can be no mistakes, no changes of mind. You pull, the eyes bulge, the eyes see you, know who and what you are, at the very last. Legs thrash, arms grapple. It cannot be easy. From the throat comes a choking, sputtering sound above the roar of water that’s gushing past. But you have to concentrate, ignore your discomfort, ignore the other’s agony, keep pulling…
And I know!