January 2008. I am lying on my stomach on the sandstone rocks at McIvers Baths in Coogee, reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. A few streets behind me, on the top floor of a 60s brick apartment, my best friend is dying. She is forty-nine. She has, although I do not know it, only ten days to live.
I am booked into a hotel nearby and came down to this tidal pool to wait for her. She is not feeling well, her partner said, when I called. I know how much she hates the idea of anyone seeing her like this. I pretend I have come to Sydney on other business so there is no fuss. I wonder if she will agree to see me at all.
Around me at the pool, rubber-capped women and girls envelop me in femininity, chattering like birds. This is the last remaining women’s-only seawater pool in Australia, having been exempted from the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act. Sandra frequented this place when she wasn’t taking her daily dips in the ocean, striking out with those strong arms in all weather and all temperatures, her early morning face bearing the red marks of the goggles.
I first noticed Sandra in September 1984 at the Penrith courthouse that had been especially configured to accommodate forty-three bikies charged over a massacre in Milperra. It was her haircut, a geometric fashionable half-bob, and her demeanour, self-assured and capable, as she zipped in and out of the courtroom filing for AAP, the news wire service. How we ended up at a French restaurant above the main street in Penrith on expense accounts from our news outlets, I cannot remember. It was over a fateful bottle of wine, however, that we made the pledge that was to forge our friendship.
‘I’ve always wanted to be a writer,’ Sandra whispered conspiratorially.
We were like children confessing that journalism was only ever a stepping-stone from the tyranny of the blank page.
Sandra had been a schoolteacher and a journalist for a suburban newspaper and had recently returned from Europe. She was glamorous and interesting to me. After the multitude of drinks and fake camaraderie at the Australian, a pub in Broadway and the local watering hole for Fairfax journalists, those first tentative meetings seemed destined to be different.
In April 2007, Sandra was diagnosed with kidney cancer. In the months following her diagnosis, Sandra told me how much she dislikes the way people intone the ‘P’ word (‘positive’) as though by repeating it, she will survive; in doing so, they banish any acknowledgement that she is dying. We approach dying with black and white definitions that imply winning and losing. Headlines that people have ‘lost the battle against cancer’ imply its victims have failed to win the final crusade, as though they have a choice.
Hours pass. I have been absorbed in the words of Sogyal Rinpoche. I try to memorise the directions of how she might spend her final moments. She has already told me she is too tired to read. I am struck by the practical tone that describes the final process, dispensed the same way that birthing books demystify the process of how we enter this world:
Traditionally the position generally recommended for dying is to lie down on the right side, taking the position of ‘the sleeping lion’, which is the posture in which Buddha died. The left hand rests on the left thigh; the right hand is placed under the chin, closing the right nostril. The legs are stretched out and very slightly bent.
I am standing on the corner of the street with the kiosk, ready to cross over at the traffic lights, unsure what to do next, when she summons me. I see her arm waving from her apartment window. There is a spring in my step as I cross the street and open the pale-blue doors that lead into the foyer of her apartment.
I have brought a mini recorder but it is concealed in my bag. We have not discussed the idea of an interview. I am shown into the lounge room by her partner and offered a seat. Sandra walks in from the hallway. She is wearing a turban and loose fitting clothes. I am already writing a poem in my head. I never write poetry, but afterwards I make an attempt. She seems so frail in the months since I have seen her; I think of a sparrow. I am thankful as her partner leaves us alone. Immediately we fall into conversation almost like old times. But between us, this time, hangs the inevitability of what will be, what might have been and what was.
‘Do you mind if I record a conversation with you?’
She pauses, surprised, then nods slowly.
We have conducted so many interviews in the visiting rooms of jails and the police bureaus of our contacts. We have interviewed hitmen, serial killers and bikies, molls and prostitutes, criminal associates of millionaires. Mostly we tackled them together, reluctant in a competitive way to allow each other the advantage of going it alone. But more often than not, it was for moral support. We were vulnerable as young women in our twenties, but together we believed we were infallible. When our book Brothers in Arms, about the shooting of the seven people in a car park in Milperra by two bikie gangs, burst forth in 1989, we were getting picked up in limos for midday chat shows. We shopped in Paddington boutiques, exhilarated by our newfound celebrity status, caught in the bright lights of the TV studios, startled by the sudden attention; me wearing breast pads, having recently given birth to my first son. Back then, no one was sure what a true crime book was. Other than Evil Angels by John Bryson about the Azaria Chamberlain story, the ‘faction’ Capote-esque style – using literary tools to tell a true story – had never been applied to an Australian crime story.
‘What do you think about your life?’ I begin.
‘I look back now and think it’s been very satisfying. I suppose writing is my greatest achievement. Well, as you know, we love crime. I love writing about it. My proudest moment is having some books published.’
‘What do you want with what’s left of your life?’
‘I don’t know how long I’ve got. But I hear of people that have cancer and they go off and list the ten things that they want to do… At the end, it doesn’t really matter. Swimming is such an important part of my life. When I was off to work on Brothers in Arms and I took six months leave without pay, I’d always remember getting ready for a swim in Bronte Baths and going over to your place, every day. I can’t imagine being without the water.’
Her answers are peppered with hope. How she might get to the stage of having more energy; how she wants to see more of Australia and how she would like to go shopping again like the old days.
She still has the hardback red accounting book that became our diary. We recorded our thoughts for nearly ten years from November 29, 1984 to May 20, 1994. Our observations about the strange worlds we inhabited were interspersed with comments about our lives – Sandra’s impressions of my first hours of motherhood and later her notes on the same son’s open heart surgery at six months of age; Sandra’s love life as she searched for ‘Mr Right’ and an entry about the day she bought her own motorbike. ‘Jap shit’ by the bikies’ standards, as it wasn’t a Harley, but she would swoop up and down the coastline of the national park fulfilling a dream.
In the tiny townhouse I rented in ‘Redfern Heights’ (aka Surry Hills) we began the first draft of Brothers in Arms while we watched the man across the road paint his house pink. We would read and re-read In Cold Blood. Following Capote’s directions and the scene setting for which he was famous, we drew on our own observations, interviews and court transcripts, creating the world of which we were writing.
The first chapter began with Sydney’s ‘ubiquitous’ Centrepoint Tower revolving towards the west. Pages of descriptive prose later, we finally alighted on the subject of the book: the Comanchero bikies and their clubhouse in Harris Park in Sydney’s western suburbs.
Rejections from several major publishing houses unsurprisingly followed, and we redrafted. Early in 1987, enjoying respite from reporting straight news stories from inside the courtroom and in the first few months of pregnancy, I had been relegated to writing features for the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine. One of my first assignments was to interview publishers about books they would like to have published. The late John Iremonger, publisher at Allen & Unwin, had already rejected the bikie book, but had tossed us the proverbial bone, adding, after the rejection: ‘If you want to send me some chapters, I’ll read them.’
I arrived at the Allen & Unwin headquarters in North Sydney, ready for his interview, armed with six chapters. He seemed surprised when I produced them with a flourish. He flicked through the pages dubiously as I sat there.
Some weeks later, when we got the phone call we had been waiting for, he began: ‘I think the book you girls should be writing is a book about bikie gangs in Australia.’
We choked back disappointment. He just didn’t get it. But then, neither had any of the other publishing houses and they hadn’t even phoned back.
‘But we’re writing about a specific incident,’ we chorused. ‘Like how Capote went to live in Holcomb in Kansas. We’re going to infiltrate the Bandidos and Comancheros – the jails, bikie parties – really immerse ourselves in what happened that afternoon when seven people were shot dead. There’s so much more to write about than what’s between the pages of the newspapers and on the TV news. Plus, we’ve got a front row seat in the courtroom and we’ve already been corresponding with the boys – passing them Minties.’
Eventually he succumbed.
Sandra was the bolshie one. Everyone mistook her Lois Lane demeanour, and her designer-wear, refined, polished exterior. Later, she worked as senior media advisor for the then–NSW Police Minister, Paul Whelan. Whelan declared she was the best staff member he’d ever had at keeping secrets. Her integrity was second to none, but her audacity knew no bounds. During one of our interviews, we met the hitman, ‘Black George’ who had been hired to kill millionaire hotelier Andrew Kalajzich’s wife. George would not tell us the venue until the day of the meeting when he chose Bill and Tony’s pasta joint in the Cross. He insisted on sitting for the entire interview with his back to the wall. After our chat finished, we learned that he happened to be driving to Cronulla where Sandra was picking up air tickets from a travel agent to go overseas. He offered her a lift. She accepted. In the toilets, I berated her.
‘Sandra, are you crazy?’
‘He could take you anywhere. How would I know where you were? How would anyone know? Meeting him in a café with me is one thing, but driving off in a car with him is another.’
I could see from that familiar, steely look in her eyes, that I was getting nowhere. In those days before mobile phones, I seriously wondered sometimes if I’d ever see her again. As it transpired, after she picked up her air tickets, the hitman stopped at a house in a suburb she knew, picked up a brown paper bag and began to casually count wads of notes in front of her.
‘Don’t even tell Lindsay about this,’ he told her before she invited him back for a coffee in her apartment.
Sandra had an unerring faith in trusting the most untrustworthy people, and was inevitably rewarded by the worst of humanity. She would often wait for stories, never rushing information, just waiting for the moment to be right. It was this kind of patience and nerve that helped her in her short-lived career as a producer for Four Corners, where she worked for five years creating highly commended television programs, before she died.
‘It feels weird being interviewed.’ She is looking at me warily, waiting for me to ask questions, guarded but complying. I realise she is only now beginning to comprehend why I am here; that I want to record her last thoughts before they are lost forever.
‘Who else should be interviewing you but me?’ I answer, struck by how conceited that sounds.
Janet Malcolm, in her book The Journalist and the Murderer, wrote that ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.’ It is the kind of quote that I would use to admonish first year journalists. I think of it now.
Sandra is still looking at me suspiciously. Then, suddenly, she relaxes.
‘Yes, you should – yes,’ she nods her head eagerly.
I plunge in, asking her how she feels about death. She tells me about her biodegradable coffin and how she wants a wake that will be ‘a big celebration’.
‘What do you hope people will be feeling?’
‘I want people to talk about me. How they knew me. How they got to know each other. Everything. I just want it to be a happy occasion. It’s my 50th birthday this year, so that has to be turned into a celebration. I suppose it sounds like a macabre occasion – a death day. But, my 50th year. The end of my life party.’
‘Do you think dying is a bad thing?’ I find myself asking the kinds of questions we never shied away from asking.
‘I think dying… dying at my age is a bad thing only in that I’ve got much more to do and I want to do much more in my life, but no, I’m not frightened of dying. I don’t want to leave everyone. That’s the saddest thing. But there’s nothing to be scared of. What frightens me is chronic pain – I don’t want to die in pain. That’s the scariest thing for me, which I think it would be for most people. I have had some quite terrible pain in the remission period. I don’t want to go back there.’
Sandra attended the birth of my twins. Later, she told me how she hurriedly prepared by watching a video, having never even seen a baby being born, never mind two. I still recall her face in the light from the hospital window, soft from the experience of watching the birth. She is holding the second twin, my son, wrapped in foil after a reluctant entry, as he was breech, and hadn’t expected to be born six weeks early.
Sandra never had children. I remember an early conversation when she confided, that when she was a child, she had wanted to have five children. I said back then I wanted to have monkeys, being an animal lover. The arrival of my three children, between 1987 and 1990, coincided with the drafts of the three books we wrote together, introducing light into the dark world we inhabited.
On February 8, 1987, in the red diary, I wrote:
Sometimes I wonder why the two things came at the same time – the baby and the book – almost as if they were saving themselves for when I had finished aimlessly proving oneself in the world of journalism.
During the early drafts of Brothers in Arms, Elliot, my eldest, was only a few months old and awaiting open-heart surgery. Sandra would drive from the eastern suburb of Clovelly, where she lived, to Newtown in the inner city where I had bought my first house. In the front room, in between his naso-gastric feeds, we would draft chapters. Elliot slept often. Sitting beside his cot, we would plot the book fastidiously with scene-sets for each chapter and a list of sources for each scene: records of interviews, personal interviews or police photographs. One of us would write one chapter and the other the next. We would swap and critique each other’s work. Reading our books now, I find it impossible to work out who wrote what. Her words and mine are one.
One afternoon in 1990, newly pregnant with twins, I fell asleep on the Director of Public Prosecutions’ floor, while we lay dictating a police brief of the Kalajzich case for our book My Husband My Killer into the tape recorder. After the birth of my twins, still on the same case, I conducted an interview with a senior detective. One of my twins had diarrhoea – the loud interjections were quite apparent when we transcribed the tape. It hadn’t occurred to me that the detective might not tolerate an eighteen-month-old in the middle of an interview. The same twin sat on my hip when I posed as a potential buyer for the Kalajzich mansion up for sale after Kalajzich’s conviction so I could make copious notes, which included a visit to the bedroom where Megan Kalajzich was murdered.
Another time, in 1992, heading back from a photo shoot after the release of My Husband My Killer, we passed Long Bay jail. I’d had a babysitter booked so suggested we drop in on John Glover, the serial killer convicted of killing six elderly women on Sydney’s North Shore, who was to be the subject of our last book together, The Killer Next Door.
‘We are friends of Roger Rogerson,’ we said confidently to the administration staff.
Rogerson was one of Sandra’s contacts and we knew Glover had met him in jail. Unbelievably, Glover agreed to see us. It was a long walk down the hallway. I only remember the inappropriateness of my dress, a mini with a band of white and purple that I would never have chosen to wear for a jail visit. Then the shock of white hair we could see as we walked down the corridor to the outside visiting area from the man sitting waiting for us. His proffered hand of welcome. Instinctively, we realised we had to shake it. He was testing our resolve. It was the same hand that held the hammer that killed all of his victims. The hammer he so calmly washed in hydrochloric acid in the shed of his middle-class home after killing another victim in broad daylight before taking a seat in the family lounge-room as though nothing had happened. This was the first of fourteen interviews we conducted in various country jails; talking into the tape recorder on the long drive back to Sydney, recalling tracts of the interview and our impressions. Sandra’s jail contacts were impeccable.
The children were too young to know where their mother disappeared to in those heady days of writing crime. Sandra and I dedicated Brothers in Arms to Elliot, ‘who fought his own battles’. His first visit out of the hospital ward when he was born was to the Penrith courthouse for the verdict.
The red diary became the repository for the sorts of self-reflection for which Helen Garner is so famous, most recently in her book documenting the death of three children at the hands of their father in This House of Grief. Garner often traverses the same terrain as we did, but, unlike us, her persona shares the stage with the other characters. Our personas were buried from view.
The true crime writer plunders records of interviews, police statements, court transcripts, interviews with eye witnesses – interrogating them for their emotions/gestures/descriptions, seeking character and place and immersing themselves in worlds far different from their own.
As journalists of the 80s, the writers’ viewpoint was forbidden; we were never present in our dark tales. As one chief-of-staff memorably advised when I was a cadet journalist: ‘No one cares what you think.’
We came from an era, as the ethnographer Rinehart proclaims, where sounding one’s own voice was ‘grounded in a deep mistrust of the worth of the self’. Besides, Capote was absent from his narrative too.
The red diary, I later realised, is an autoethnographer’s dream. One early entry reads:
And somehow, I feel our book has got a pace of its own – the events, the strangeness of the world carry you on…’ [8 February 1987.]
Almost a month later, I wrote:
An alien environment – that is my home. It is 8.30 pm. I am just back from work – my clothes smelling of smoke, hungry to a mournful dog, a sick catfish and a cockroach now dying from flyspray. [4 March 1987.]
More than twenty years later, I am struck by the entries where we canvassed the same kinds of ethical considerations Garner explores:
Just rang Foggy’s (one of the Comancheros killed on the massacre) mother-in-law who reacted with horror at the thought of a book. She said she wouldn’t discuss it except to say he was a No 1 person. Sort of knocks you back a bit when you realise it’s such real people you’re dealing with – like why are you doing it, etc. why not let it rest? Was he a nice bloke and will we ever know? PS, her interstate truck driver husband rang this evening and she is now happy to talk. Doesn’t want the twins mentioned. [20 January 1987.]
Although we did not physically move to the western suburbs of Sydney, we visited there every day while covering the first months of the court case. We also sought to find out what happened outside of those legal walls, to investigate bikie culture. Perhaps our bravest (or most foolish) escapade was when we visited the Bandido clubhouse in Parramatta.
Nine of the bikies were unexpectedly released from jail the year after the massacre. We rallied our fears and headed to the Royal Oak in Paramatta, the Bandido watering hole. Sandra had her eyes on the Māori Bandido named Roo and he’d agreed to meet us there. Entering the bar, we bolted to the beer garden: half a dozen Bandidos in their leather jackets, resplendent in their ‘colours’, featuring a bright Mexican sombrero, were standing at the bar.
‘We’ll have to talk to them if we’re writing a book,’ I reasoned to Sandra outside.
A few months pregnant, I walked back into the bar and asked in my best ocker accent, ‘We’re lookin’ for Roo. D’ye know where he is?’
‘Would youse guys like a schooner?’
They raised an eyebrow and nodded. Sandra then joined us and began a drink for drink. Pregnant, I stayed on soda, lime and bitters.
‘You girls wanna come to the clubhouse?’ one of them asked after a while.
Would we what?
Outside, in my old Renault, I pushed my handbag behind me so I could reach the pedals as the seat mechanism had broken.
‘Follow that Harley,’ one of the Bandidos said to Sandra through the open window of the car, pointing up ahead. Hardly a getaway car, we drove the Renault through the backstreets of Parramatta, giggling at our bravado.
Sandra died just over a week after I returned to Townsville on January 21, 2008. Each night, in that week following my return, I would run along the wall to the entrance of the harbour on Magnetic Island where I live, watching the surf crash into the rocks and the milky shades of sunset that you get in the tropics merge with the sea. Every day, I thought of her lying in palliative care surrounded by so many friends and her family and partner. She gave me the diary. I read and reread the entries in tears until I alight on this one, that I wrote on April 4, 1989 when I received the first copy of Brothers in Arms:
It wasn’t until I got home & snatched some minutes on the couch reading the first few pages that I began to feel excitement, to remember and to revel in these people who come alive on the pages, real people, as Sandra said, who live and die in these pages whose lives flicker, are illuminated, who breathe warmth to the reader, disappointment and despair, who confront death and grapple with the result … What reaction will we have to our work, the hours with a baby in the bouncer, naso-gastric tube in his nose, tapping into the computer … And what of the protagonists? Will they learn much about the others whose lives were bound up with theirs? Will they be angry at two women intruding into their lives?
On a clifftop, not far from her apartment, some months before she died, I gave Sandra some Buddhist prayer beads and sat teaching her om mani padme hum.
‘It’s too late to try to learn how to meditate,’ she said, but took the beads nevertheless. I saw them hanging in pride of place in her bedroom.
The SD Harvey Short Story Award was established by Lindsay in honour of her friend. In 2015 Kill Your Darlings will be partnering with the ACWA to increase the award’s prize money and to publish the winner.