Extenuating Circumstances

“I need you to divorce me,” she said.

As soon as I saw her I knew she was right. I needed me to divorce her.

Although in truth I there could be no thought of remarriage. Not even a Reno remarriage. Even if Nevada was well over a day’s flying away.

The crushing humidity set all thoughts aside. The future harbinger of another tropical storm: all future hope forgotten.

It was her purple kaftan that assuaged my doubts, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, wafting like a spell: gossamer, light, wispy, translucent.

Yes indeed, your Honour, I am but a humble witness.

Lady Godiva length straight black hair. Beads encircling her neck. Flowers in her hair.

Objection sustained. Yes your Honour, I’m expressing a personal view: such evidence wouldn’t be admissible.

But every time thereafter I dreamed of her, and I awoke fully ready, she had flowers. In short, your Honour, she was the full free-range dress rehearsal hippie chick.

Now obviously I’m not Perry Mason. I’m no oil painting. A bespoke forgery more like it, hatched out with a paint-knife in the dark.
Putty-nose, red-wine veined cheeks, beer gut on the overhang, that’s me.

But I can dream. And I did. I’m a divorce lawyer, right. It comes with the job.

And respectfully I submit to your Honour, that these form the extenuating circumstances of my submission.

If I may be permitted to address the jury, I will set out the background for my testimony.

Members of the Jury, divorce ‘74 Australian-style would be the reality TV show that would never be made. Before the Family Law Act of 1975, divorce was difficult, in all practicality impossible.

While there were grounds for divorce, your Honour, members of the jury, you needed lashings of cash and eternal patience.

And if you had neither those nor the inclination, much like what would be required for a renovation of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, well, my advice was simple and straight. Look the other way.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not the glamorous Hollywood divorce lawyer.

You see my clients often wanted to divorce on the quiet. Considering their other occupations. They didn’t want the publicity.

Although a bit of notoriety would’ve helped my business. But this is Australia. And while Zsa Zsa Gabor nor Elizabeth Taylor, could have graced my books, the law would have ensured almost complete secrecy.

Truth is, your Honour, men and women of the jury, us divorce lawyers way back then were a real mongrel breed, if you’ll forgive the salty language. Part clerk, part private investigator, more than half rogue. Like our canine counterparts we had diversified into other areas: criminal defence, civil suits and conveyancing.

Nowadays, it would be fill out the forms, witness the affidavit, file the paperwork and all things being equal, see you in twelve to eighteen months. Then the lovers walk away into the sunset, their current co-habiting abode or the registry office.

And now having provided the necessary background, let me resume, my description of my client.

Her long spindly spatula fingers stretched and caressed the humidity of my poky office. She turned slowly as if she still hadn’t found the right dress at the bridal boutique.

I followed her every movement waiting for her to continue. She could take as much time as she needed. Or as much as I did. Yes I put to you that I am sometimes far too easily led by a pretty other.

That spell was broken when Lyn burst in. She broke the moment, shattered what could have been. Damnable Lyn, legal secretary to the stars, now breathless and sweating, her cotton dress clinging closely to her.

Yes, your Honour, in response to your objection, I will rephrase my testimony: my legal secretary was glistening.

Meanwhile my client-to-be had translated herself elsewhere. A place cool and serene. For she had no sweat on her. As a good witness, I looked, twice in fact, in truth thrice, just to make sure.

“I’m sorry,” Lyn began. “I couldn’t stop her.”

Then her lips silently mouthed, “I didn’t see her come in.”
“Sure,” I thought. “I’ll handle this,” I said.

I waved her away.

“But what about…” Lyn began.

“Reschedule them,” I replied.

Lyn gave me that special look. The one combining contempt and ridicule. Which stayed until my then-sainted but yet-to-be martyred secretary took a closer look at my client.

Now my secretary, so she tells me, is a God-fearing woman. She tells me so often that I stay at arm’s length from here and well beyond.

I looked. I stared. For Lyn had turned into Lot’s wife. Salt white, then charcoal grey. Her hand rose high out of the corner of my eye.

Lyn’s eyes had rolled back in her head. She opened her mouth to scream. But nothing came out. Then Lyn snapped in two and ran.

Last I heard was the glass in the frosted glass office door rattling fit to fall out. Then the slam of the door.

So much for Lyn.

During all of this, my new client had stayed serene. And in that time I had managed to take, well may I say a more professional look at her.

Now that I recall the circumstances, your Honour, there was a kind of sheen around her. She outshone the shadows that should be cast from my venetian blinds. She outshone my spluttering fluoro lights. I reckon she would have outshone the sun had I opened the window. But Brisbane ’74 had the standard sweat-swapping humidity melded with a temperature just below the century that day,.

Now that I recall it, it was like she was back-lit all the time. Now, yes I remember, now that I’m under oath, I would in fact put to you, that when she turned, she cast no shadow at all.

I motioned her to sit on my gun metal grey office chair. And again, she didn’t sit on that chair. She floated above it. But oh so demurely, your Honour.

“First I need to take down some personal details.” I buzzed Lyn.
“Excuse me, I need to get my secretary.”

I strolled past my Lady Godiva and opened the office door. No Lyn. Run off with the fairies? I couldn’t say. It wasn’t until later that I remembered. It was as if someone didn’t want me to recall…

“It’s just you and me then.”
I opened my office filing cabinet, pulled out a form and a yellow legal pad.
“What’s your name?”
“Moon Starlight,” she said.

Well that’s easy then. A name like that would be easily enough found in the registry. Except there would be the inevitable snickering from the clerks.

But a bottle or two of Johnny Walker’s Red Label would fix that. Anything in a brown paper bag, even money, would pave the way in those days.

I continued.
She wouldn’t say.
“Up from Nimbin? Byron Bay maybe? Mullumbimby?”
She shook her head. I caught her eye, stumbled and nearly fell into them.
Her real address, I heard her say, somewhere far away, perhaps not of this earth at all.
My unwilling unsharpened pencial scratched out the details. Separated: of no fixed address.

“What’s the name of your…” I began.
Her hand had already placed the photograph on my desk.
Black and white: passport size. One look at that photograph was enough for me. I had been played.

Your Honour, I these were extenuating circumstances indeed.

The passport photograph of the missing Lord L. Famous fugitive, nanny killer and failed murderer of his estranged wife. Darling of the tabloids. As you would well know, Your honour.

Even here in Brisbane, every time I opened the Tele or it’s then nemesis : the Courier-Mail, I saw his face.

Leering out at me.

The world’s most wanted man. More sightings than the Scarlet Pimpernel: England, South Africa and Australia. Made Ronnie Biggs look like an overseas recluse.

He’s dead, I thought.
Moon Starlight turned and looked. Straight through me.

I let out a deep breath. Next question.

“Marriage certificate?” I said.

“It’s with him.”

England then? On the body? With the nanny?

“When were you married?”

She intoned the date.

I snapped my pencil at that. Lead everywhere. One day after the actual crime.

Now of course, if he was there and she was here…it could be possible…But…

I submit your Worship, I’m no clairvoyant, spirit healer or fortune teller. I’m a lawyer: I devil with reality. I am recounting what I encountered without prejudice.

I found another pencil.

“What are your reasons for a divorce?”

She wasn’t looking at me. She had turned around. I could hear whispers: from far away.

I ponder the possible answers. Desertion is out: they need two to five years. Insanity, maybe, but I could only vouch for her mental state : unless he was convicted and got off mentally ill. Again far too long.

Attempted murder? Maybe. But he hadn’t been apprehended, let alone brought to trial, let alone convicted. Same as option 2.

Adultery? Even harder to prove: who was the adulterer or adulteress?
She had returned.
“Who are you talking to?” I asked.
“My spirit guides,” she breathed.
Beautiful girl, but rather deluded.
“And the grounds for divorce?”

“Spiritual incompatibility,” she breathed.

Perfect. Which would be grounds for divorce for everyone on the planet.

Except maybe Romeo and Juliet. But that wasn’t the longest love affair was it? Perhaps in time it would happen to them.

The sooner Australia got no fault divorce the better. Time for a different tack.

“Why divorce?” I ask. “Why not wait until he’s found and brought to trial?”
But her spirit guides want a word. She turned around. I wait. And there’s that slow swish before she answers.

“We were married in life. And are therefore married in death,” she replied. “Before we can be divorced in death, we must be first divorced in life.”

Until death us do part. And she had found extenuating circumstances even for that.

Beautiful, fascinating, gorgeous gal but not even a shred of commonsense.

Yet the good Lord L had only left his wife a matter of what.. a few months….

What am I meant to do? Bring him back from the dead? Get him to sign divorce papers?

She’s listening, I know it.

Then the answer came to me. Why didn’t I think of it before?

I took a deep breath and pronounced final sentence. Judge Maximum John Sirica had nothing on me in that moment.

“Bigamy…If you can find him. Or the original wedding certificate…for the first marriage…and yours of course.”

Her fingers flexed and spidered together. Her eyes narrowed and burned me.

Then the office went Arctic on me. The fluoro lights started buzzing. Then flickering like a horde of mozzies. Mosquitoes, your Honour, my apologies, English jurisdiction I realise.

Then then air-conditioning unit breathed a drawn-out death rattle and packed it in. The walls of my poky office began to move closer to me.

She wasn’t back-lit anymore.

I’ve faced down worse than her. Criminals, crooked cops, conveyancers and worst of all, Court Registrars.

I said, “You could, you..you..could…send your ‘spirit guides’”.

Ice city. I was a freezing man waving my hands for a lifesaver on an Arctic beach.

“Find him., get him to sign.”

She had turned away. I sipped a small breath and hoped.

Swish-swish again and silence. I chose then to make my escape and palmed her my business card.

“I’m not your man,” I said. “Wedding certificates and/or ex-husband. Then we can talk.”

She looked through me and disappeared. I recall clearly. For the door didn’t even shush on her way out.

And after that, all hell broke.

First to go was the telex. Off-line then on-line every half-hour without fail. Each time I pulled out the telephone line and plugged it back in but to no avail.

Next was the fax. Same-same. No fixes. The telephone company didn’t know. Or didn’t want to know.

Finally, Lyn started getting strange phone calls. Every telex, every letter, every file was lost or misdirected.

And do you think the flouros and air conditioner returned to normal. Nope.

The next day, Lyn bearded me.

“That witch client of yours,” she began.

I spread out my hands and shrugged.

“Not my problem, darling,” I replied. “I sent her on her way.”

“Look around you,” Lyn whirled. “SHE…NEVER…LEFT.”

“Calm down, you getting overwrought,” I said to her.

Lyn ignored my token sexism.

“Either she goes or.. I’ll..I’ll…I’ll call down fire from heaven if she even shows her face…”

“MARRIAGE CERTIFICATE!,” I said. “Then we’re done.”

But Lyn was. She took a long holiday down to the Gold Coast.

Everything returned to normal. Everything, that is, except for the filing cabinets.

Three days later, I came in early. When I unlocked the outer office, I could see the mess. Even through the frosted glass door: papers and files strewn everywhere on the floor.

Burglary, obviously. But not the cops though. They always come in the front door. With their empty brown bags always in need of filling.

I checked the outer office door. Then the inner one. No signs of forced entry, Sherlock. I mean your Honour.

And the filing cabinets were locked.

Neatest burglars I’d ever come across.

That night, I locked myself in the office, put my feet up on Lyn’s desk and spent my efforts keeping a coffee flask awake.

Three in the morning, your Honour, I’m at the scene of the crimep
I kept dozing off. I’m in the middle of a dream. Moon Starlight is keeping me awake and she is doing a fine job.

Until I kick my foot against the desk and wake myself up.

I can see through my half-lidded eyes, the lights start to flicker and hum. I wake, jump out of my chair and stand on my desk. Just as I’m reaching up to push the fluorescent lights back in their slot, I hear her.

Or rather that swishing sound. I turn. There’s a purple shimmering near the filing cabinet.

Its lock turns left, then right, then left again.

The middle drawer slides out silently.

One manila folder lifts itself slowly up and out. Then another. And another. All are thrown onto the floor.

I’m alive now. I feel all my skin. The hairs on my neck are as stiff as steel wool.

A folder is opened. I see a sheet of paper. The folder is closed. It’s returned to the filing cabinet. Along with all the other folders. The filing cabinet closes and is locked. Right, left then right to finish.

The shimmering glows strong, shines and then disappears. A flicker of translucent purple is all I see through the frosted glass in the outer office.

I’m across in a flash. My fingers fumble and unlock the cabinet.
I pull out the file. I flip through the folder and there it is.

Both wedding certificates.

And a postcard from Lyn. With a palm tree. “I’m never coming back.”

And the next day, I’m waiting at the church. Waiting for Starry-eyed Moonlight to turn up, fill out the paperwork and file the orders.

Bigamy, divorce, bingo, ghost-free.

Meanwhile the summer of ’74 rolls on. Phone, fax and telex return to duty. Air-conditioning and office lights resume normal transmission.

I close the case. Moon Starlight has returned to her coven I suppose.

All quite, case closed. That is, until HE turns up.

Dark trilby hat, funeral black suit dark moustache now greyed against a charcoal face. He’s certainly not as dapper as his photographs. He’s more subdued. As if his life has been leached from him.

But I can attest to his identity, your Honour.

“Lord,” I begin. His gesture silenced me. “Where’s…” I ask.

He takes a seat.

“Not a word, my good man,” he murmured. “Discretion is vital. I must complete this rather awkward business forthwith.”

“I’ll bring in the file,” I say. His hand reached out to restrain me.

“Annulment,” he says. Why didn’t I think of that before?

I’m stupefied. I’m in a trance. I open the desk drawer, find the right form, fill it out and hand it to him.

Unbidden, he suppllies the explanation.

“It’s quite simple really. As you pointed out, if Romeo had never met Juliet…then they would not be married in this life…”

“Or in the next,” I answer.

He drew a fountain pen from his pocket, signs. I sign as witness. I hand back the pen and he’s gone. The door didn’t shut on his way out either.

They never found his body, your Honour. But I submit to you that I met him when he was not alive.
I perfectly understand, your Honour. After all these are extenuating circumstances.

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