A Night to Remember, A Night to Forget
It happened in the back garden of one of Melbourne's most eminent conservative academics on a December night a few days before Christmas. Each year, the Professor and his family - wife Victoria and daughter Regina - put on an evening of pre-Christmas drinks for their friends. Me and the ex got invited through our social connections with the Professor's daughter, who was a little, even rather a lot, to the left of her father on political issues. As you might imagine the political positions of the guests reflected those of their respective hosts, so it was a very mixed gathering.
I forget his name - for present purposes we might as well call him Cedric Cudham and have done with it. Of his appearance, all I remember is that he wore a pair of coke bottle spectacles and academic deshabille - a pale cream open-necked shirt which may, or may not, have been graced with a cravat in lieu of a necktie. He spoke with an accent of the kind that once prompted a long-lost girlfriend - a working holidayer from the Old Dart - to ask "Why do so many people in this country work so hard at sounding like middle-class gits from Surbiton?" She laughed when I told her that they weren't working at it that, in fact, they picked up their Surbiton accents at our most exclusive private schools. In Cedric's case, I think she might have been on the money; whatever the source of his accent, he put a lot of effort into letting everyone know that he had one.
For Cedric, the Professor - who actually preferred to be called Albert or Bert - could only be addressed as Professor or Sir. Mrs Professor was Victoria and Miss Professor, their daughter, Regina. The rest of us were just you as befitted our status as nameless non-entities with no connections who could assist his rise to a lofty eminence of academic mediocrity. In other words, he was one of those kiss up and kick down guys.
The conversation was at that vague stage between the opening - when people are sounding each other out with questions like "So, what do you do for a crust?" staying well away from controversial topics, preferring to talk pop-culture instead until they've got some idea of how to get into the interesting stuff without provoking a blazing row - and the conversational middle game, when those controversial topics finally get opened. Possibly Cedric was impatient to get into his middle game. Whatever the reason, he asked apropos nothing at all "What do you think of this Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in custody then, Regina?" Talk about bringing out your Queen too early.
Regina didn't take up his invitation; she said something non-commital and turned to another topic. You might say she castled short with a view to putting together a solid pawn position, but that's straining the metaphor a bit. But Cedric wasn't to be put off that easily - he pursued the topic until someone broke in to ask: "Well, what do you think of the Royal Commission then?"
It was a voice I recognised easily. It was that of my beloved - this was back in the old days, well before the night we broke the sacred oath we took one night that we would never be that couple in the restaurant who've decided to go out and talk their difficulties over on neutral ground, with a good meal thrown in to help keep things more or less civil, then fail miserably in the endeavour and put all the other customers off their food.
I recognised the look on her face too - seeing it, the last thing that I would be inclined to do would be offer an opinion on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody but Cedric was made of much denser stuff. "Well, I think it was gross waste of the taxpayer's money," he declared, "if you look at the statistics you'll find that most of the deaths in custody in Australia are of white prisoners but no-one's interested in having a Royal Commission into those."
Where precisely the dialogue went after that I don't recall, but it rapidly turned into one of those blazing rows that everyone had been trying very hard to avoid. Most of the blaze was on Cedric's side; there was a distinct chill on the other side of the table where my then-beloved was sitting. The two of them were gathering a bit of an audience too - there was a lot of jockeying for positions in the western stands, where it was easier to watch the spectacle of Cedric's facial expressions. All you could see from the eastern stands was the icy cold tigress-with-a-litter-of-cubs-to-feed glare of his interlocutor which, admirable as it was, was nowhere near as entertaining. Everybody looked very earnest and po-faced but there was a lot of traffic from the garden into the house, particularly the toilet, where people used the relative privacy to vent their feelings as best they could and restore their composure. I spent a good five minutes there myself, stamping my feet a few times and damn near biting off my index finger before I could get back to the impromptu entertainment.
When I got back, Cedric launched into a remark beginning "With all due respect ..." and faltered because nowhere in the course of the dispute so far had he bothered to find out who he was talking to. "Helga" offered the Valkyrie of my dreams.
"With all due respect Helga ..."
Helga pulled hard on the length of rope that he had just wound around his neck. "Don't give me 'with all due respect'," she said "We both know that means you don't respect me at all. I would never insult you by telling you that I respected you when I obviously didn't. Just come out and say what you have to say."
Poor Cedric was gobsmacked. His face glowed a deep scarlet and he sputtered a few times while he struggled to cope with the novel idea of delivering an insult without prefacing it with some mealy-mouthed periphrasis. He'd been called out to fight like a woman. It really was difficult for the poor chap so when he spoke again, it was with all the force of a stutterer finishing a long struggle with the word "pomposity".
"Alright Helga, you're a fool ..." he began, and went on to enumerate her several follies before restating his position with a few variations - there should have been a Royal Commission into white deaths in custody and the whole damn thing was a complete waste of time because no wrongdoing was found on the part of the police.
"They had a duty of care to all of those prisoners," Helga said, quietly but firmly "And they failed in that duty."
Once more, Cedric was gobsmacked. "But they all committed suicide!" he cried, "That's simply preposterous."
At this point, someone else jumped into the conversation - a retired businessman in his late fifties or early sixties, who had taken to writing crime fiction to make a few readies to pad out the income from his investments. "Actually, that's a pretty good point, regardless of whether a prisoner's black or white - while they're in custody the police do have a duty of care."
Finally, Cedric recognised that the audience was against him - he was outmatched on intellect, knowledge and simple good manners. He turned to his one last hope for salvation. "Well, what's your opinion, Professor, Sir?" he asked.
The Professor merely gave him a quizzical look and Cedric quickly subsided into silence. A few minutes later he said his goodbyes and left, working very hard at not looking like a man who is slinking away from an argument that he has just lost, making a complete fool of himself into the bargain. Once he was gone the conversation turned to the post-match commentary. Someone even made the mischievous suggestion that Cedric had primed himself for the evening by reading up on all the controversial topics he might find himself arguing about, the better to impress others - particularly Bert - with his compendious knowledge. OK, so that was me. Helga found a private moment to apologise to Victoria for her involvement in the whole kerfuffle.
"Oh, don't worry about it," Victoria reassured her, "It's about time Cedric was brought down a peg or two."
I learnt later that, in the New Year, Albert and Victoria had to get someone in to replace several cracked tiles and regrout the entire floor in the toilet.