Carry on Counsel

by Arna Delle-Vergini

cowboy

This happened.

A few weeks ago I drove out of town to visit my mother. By the time I arrived it was after dinner. I pulled up in front of the house and the moment I turned off the engine I heard a man screaming “F–k you, f—k you”. I didn’t recognise the voice.  It was so loud it felt as if he were standing by my car, but when I looked around, there was no-one there.

It was dark and the street was poorly lit. I wasn’t about to take any chances so I drove and parked around the corner. I sat in the car for a few minutes. Nothing. I looked around. Still nothing. When I had satisfied myself that it was safe, I got out of the car and started walking up the path towards her house.

Then I saw him. He was standing directly across the road from my mother’s house, parallel to her front door. He stood in an exaggerated, almost comical stance – hyper-masculine, his legs spread out and his arms – hanging to the sides of his body but a little elevated and ever so slightly crooked at the elbow – as if he were a cowboy getting ready for a shoot-out. I thought: “this is like a Western”. Then, to my dismay, he slowly pulled back the right side of the jacket and reached into his pocket. I thought: “oh no, he’s got a gun”.

When you find yourself in what you perceive to be a life-threatening situation, two things happen: firstly, you enter into a surreal space where words and images coalesce into a David Lynch style story-board with you as its main character. Secondly, you have to make a split-second decision: am I going to fight? Am I going to take flight? Or am I going to carry on as if nothing even remotely significant is happening?

I chose the latter.

Turning my back on this man to walk up the path to my mother’s door took some resolve. It also felt very much like I had selected the wrong option the moment he spoke again:

I’ve got a gun you know”.

The words, like gossamer, floated across the road and landed softly, like a shroud over my head. I should have been more frightened. But I wasn’t. It seemed like he had suddenly confided something in me. It was a secret. Some kind of pact. An invitation? A script?

What were my lines? I could not for the life of me remember. I waited for the shot to ring out. But a strong part of me could not accept that this might be “it”. I had no intentions of dying on my mother’s doorstep. Quite the contrary. Within seconds it seems, I had considered my imminent death, decided very much against it, and chose to carry on as per the original plan.

I knocked on the front door. No-one answered. I knocked again. No-one answered. In a voice that was calmer than it should have been I called out “Mum open the door”. At this point it seemed as if a spell was broken. I heard him now – behind me still, only closer – saying “Um…I’m sorry. I thought you were a Saudi”.

Indeed! Never before had I been so relieved to have an Aussie accent.

And then he walked away.

When my mother finally opened the door I said: “Mum…he told me he had a gun.” This immediately had the desired effect. Mum made me a cup of hot tea and put a blanket around my shoulders while my niece prepared a water bottle. Perhaps out of an excess of caution, she also called the police. The next person might not be so lucky. The next person might actually be Saudi!

It took hours for my body to return to normal after that event. I was cold. Ever so cold. I also found myself replaying the incident over and over again in my own mind over the next couple of days. It was just there in the background, like a silent-movie, flickering from one image to the next. For a cameo appearance, the man in the shadows with the gun, certainly had given me quite a startle.

When discussing “the man in the shadows with the gun event” over the next week or so, I was often asked why I had chosen to act as if nothing was happening (as opposed to say, jumping behind one of the bushes in the garden). I didn’t really have an answer other than to say I seem to be always “carrying on regardless”. Indeed, in my profession, it is rather to be expected.

On my noticeboard at home I have a picture of Joan Rosanove smoking a cigarette through a long, black elegant cigarette holder. Underneath her picture is the quote: “To be a lawyer you must have the stamina of an ox, and a hide like a rhinoceros, and when they kick you in the teeth, you must look as if you hadn’t noticed.”

As lawyers, we routinely develop tough exteriors in order to manage the nature of our work, the competitiveness of our profession, and the combativeness of court life. But what is the true cost? What is the price we pay for going about our business acting as if nothing of import is happening to and around us? Is there a cost? There has to be. In “the man in the shadows with the gun event” the cost was a shock response that lasted hours and some mild trauma symptoms lasting a day or two. That’s ‘small change’ really. But if you were to carry on acting as if nothing of import is happening throughout your entire career, well, I imagine it’s quite possible that the ‘small change’ might gradually add up to quite a sum.