There she is. Rushing. Not because she’s late, which she is, but because she’s impatient. Was I like that once, expecting the world to get out of the way for me? She grabs a chair from another table, without asking the man sitting there, and scrapes it across the aggregate.
So the third chair was just to dump your backpack on. Oh, and look, a waiter, when I spent five minutes trying to catch someone’s eye.
‘The next session is two-thirty,’ she says. She smells of cigarette smoke. I thought selling tobacco to anyone born after the year 2000 had been banned.
‘What happened to you on Sunday?’
‘You have a phone.’
Sophie watches a group of teenagers with shaved heads and says nothing. When the coffee arrives, she asks, ‘You understand what this is, this exhibition?’
‘I’m paying $260 so that we can look at a murderer sitting in a cage.’
‘There’s an ancillary exhibition as well. I’m writing a paper for university. I told you. It’s about crime and media, which are both … well … you wouldn’t understand. The point is, I’ve been trying to get access to the images but they’re ridiculously strict. Even the catalogue doesn’t have them.’ She inhales half a cup of coffee, stares out over the river, and is suddenly not there. I let her daydream before reminding her of the time.
‘Yes,’ she says, ‘have we paid?’ I am about to stand up when she takes my phone. ‘Just tap it against the table number.’ She hands it back to me to enter my password. ‘Actually, they won’t let us take phones into the exhibition.’
It proves harder to get through the entrance gate than it is to get onto an aeroplane. We have to show a photo ID that is verified online and confirmed using facial-recognition software. We then have to pass through scanners and detectors. There are guards in uniform everywhere. I assume they are there to add to the theatre and drama of the exhibition, rather than any real security concern. Finally we are given an exhibition pack, which includes a catalogue, a booklet on preventing crime and a sick bag.
Once we’re inside most people gravitate towards the half-dozen screens showing the police in the street and Nugent in bed before his arrest.
Sophie stops and people are forced to go around us.
‘I just need to see the black box,’ she says. I think I’m supposed to ask, ‘what black box’, because after a pause she continues. ‘BluSky Media paid 5 million for the worldwide media rights to the arrest. There were cameras on all the police helmets and cameras inside the house. Some people argue the bedroom stuff was restaged and isn’t real. Which is nonsense. Anyway, Rodriguez argues the recorded version of any event is always the real one.’
We watch the door of the second-floor apartment being smashed open.
‘It was a seminal media event. Most major arrests are now filmed. Access is auctioned. Pay-per-view figures are huge. Law enforcement is transparent and taxpayers don’t bear the costs.’
She stops talking while we watch Nugent being dragged from the bed wearing a light-green T-shirt and no pants. ‘Ah, see,’ says Sophie, ‘no black box. The broadcast version at the time had a black square over his genitals. The Žižek Institute said BluSky paid 5 million for castration rights. We don’t need to watch any more, it’s available as a download.’ She dodges around a corner and disappears.
I follow her into a gallery where the five murder weapons, all knives, float at chest height, suspended in a closed field. Next to them is an interactive map showing where the bodies were dumped in bushland at the edge of the city.
But the main exhibits in the room are the life-size, crime-scene photographs of the five victims, oriented vertically, with their faces at head height. The angle is disorienting because they have been photographed from above. It’s as though we float over them looking down; as though I’m the middle-aged soul adrift from the youthful corpse of Pontiac Jade Bicknel.
‘Oh, Mum.’ Sophie’s hand squeezes my forearm. The images are very confronting. They owe more to Bill Hensen than to any school of forensic photography: dark, visceral, achingly intimate and yet unapproachable. The pale skin is sheened with dew or speckled with leaves and twigs and small stones. Fluted-edged incisions leak glistening trails of tea-coloured body fluid. There is a slug on Natasha’s thumbnail; a green leaf, just visible, in Tamsin Liu’s mouth. In the corner of one of Jody’s wide-open, pale-grey eyes is a large green fly. She looks through it and through us and sees only what the dead see.
‘Are you all right?’ I can feel her hand trembling.
‘I think so.’
‘You’re as white as a sheet.’
‘I didn’t expect them to be so … real.’
I’m astonished the families of the five victims agreed to the exhibition.
‘Fifty per cent of the money goes to a charity foundation to keep alive their memory,’ Sophie says. I’d forgotten how good she can be at reading my mind. Over recent years I had thought we were losing that connection.
‘We should go stare at Nugent,’ she says and walks away with quick, small steps and her head lowered. When she is gone I wipe my eyes with a tissue. And hesitate. Do I want to stare at Nugent?
For me there is a point to being in this particular room—I can bear witness to an atrocity. I can be ashamed that my world allowed this to happen to these young women who are of an age with my daughter. Their murderer shouldn’t be seen as interesting because of what he has done. Serial killers are not folk heroes. But I walk across the room.
The cell abuts one of the long sides of the rectangular main auditorium. It looks like a giant glass vitrine or terrarium with bars lightly marked on the surface, though it probably isn’t glass. Nugent is sitting on a brown plastic chair facing away from the back wall where two guards, male and female, who look the part, are standing. I wonder if they’ve got agents.
I squeeze in beside Sophie who has claimed a spot at the rail and is making notes on a paper notebook with a pencil. She seems to be carefully not looking at Nugent.
‘The victims were shown to us naked,’ she says. ‘Don’t you think he should be too?’
‘Make him pathetic and defenceless.’
He is wearing grey trousers and a yellow shirt stamped with ‘Dept of Corrections Qld’. His hands are handcuffed to a chain about his waist.
I watch him for a moment, slumped in the chair and staring at the floor. He is not the weedy, nondescript loner of the stereotype, but nor is he a wild-eyed monster with fangs. He is middle-aged, of middle height, solidly built, with dark hair and a thin beard.
The audience seems restless and unsatisfied. Too much distance. Too much like TV. They want him, as Sophie said, curled up, pathetic, defenceless and spattered with gobs of their own spit; or they want him terrifying, a short scream away from smashing through the cage and bringing down the stragglers. They want him to be a monster who did the inconceivable.
But how hard is it to kill someone? You take a carving knife, lean over the kitchen table, and push it into a soft part of the body. Or you slice lightly across an artery. It’s not much effort. It takes no skill. You just need to forget for a brief moment that you’re not supposed to do it. And keep the knives sharp.
I glance over and see that Sophie is sketching the scene. She has drawn Nugent as a stick figure. She belongs to a generation for whom pads and pencils are as archaic and alien as oil lamps. They stopped teaching cursive the year she began school. Her notes are printed in capitals.
‘What do you make of him?’ I ask.
‘He looks evil.’
‘His face, his eyes, everything about him.’
‘He looked like that before he killed anyone.’
‘Well, yeah. He was evil before or he wouldn’t have done it.’
‘So we should be able to go around and find all the evil-looking people who haven’t done anything, yet, and lock them up?’
She frowns and is about to say something when there is a stir among the crowd. Nugent is sitting up and surveying the audience. Sophie turns back towards the cell just as Nugent looks in our direction. They stare at each other for a long, cold moment. Some people even turn to look towards us. Nugent licks his lips. Sophie shrinks against me with a shudder. When she was small she used to hide behind my legs when strangers came to the door. I put my hand on her shoulder.
Without warning the door through which we entered slides closed and locks. Sophie flinches and steps away. For a moment we are all locked in the same space. The light goes out inside the cell and the walls become opaque and reflective. We stare malevolently at ourselves in a surprisingly existential moment that seems beyond the Department of Corrections Education Unit. Behind us an exit door opens and two guards enter and take up positions. Our 30 minutes have elapsed. I watch Sophie’s reflection walking away.
Outside the day has advanced half an hour but little else has changed. Sophie has her phone back in her hand and her backpack on her shoulder and I expect her to rush off. Instead she puts an arm around my waist and her head on my shoulder and we stand in the sun under a blue sky with the brown river sparkling below us.
‘What are you doing for dinner?’ she asks.
‘Whatever’s in the fridge. You’re welcome.’
‘I might,’ she says, ‘I might. If that’s okay.’
‘Aaron can pick me up tomorrow.’
We walk towards the transport hub.