“You’re very brave being here,” Jerry said, looking around the dingy café.
The customers here all seem to be associated with the prison across the road somehow. Some are guards dressed in gray uniforms, and others are administration. The rest of the patrons have that same air of discomfort that Jerry does, the look of wishing they were all somewhere else. Maybe they’re here for the same reason as Jerry and Blair. There’s a quiet murmur of chatter that seems cold and forced, making the atmosphere in the café somewhat unfriendly.
“I don’t feel brave. I feel like getting out of here, to be honest,” Blair said with a shiver.
“I still think you should’ve told your friends about it,” Jerry said, pushing the awful coffee away.
Blair shrugs. “I didn’t get much notice; besides, ten years is a long time. People forget and move on with life, don’t they?”
Jerry just rolls his eyes and gazes out the window at the cars driving by.
When the murder happened, there was an outcry in the community. However, Blair understands life doesn’t stop for the dead, and so always knew there’d come a time when the loss would have to a lone burden. Jerry squeezes Blair’s reminding as if sensing this loneliness in his friend and gives a smile of reassurance. However, today is not about Jerry, Blair’s here for Tim.
“We’d better get going then. It’s nearly time for the hearing,” Jerry said, motioning the server who ambled over with the bill.
Blair slides out of the booth, goes outside, and waits while Jerry pays, then the two cross the road toward the prison.
Jerry suddenly asks, “What will you do if they release him?
A question Blair has grappled a lot recently and has no firm answer. “What can I do? It’s not my decision,” Blair said tonelessly while holding slender hands up and out to accent defeat.
After all the security checks and searches, they go to the room in the prison where parole hearings occur. The room smells like a mixture of sweat and tobacco. The fluorescent lighting gives it a washed out, gloomy look. The guards standing around are listless, blank; they’d seen it all before. An old man and woman are sitting on the opposite side of the visitors’ gallery, its Harding’s parents. Blair hadn’t seen them since the trial, and they seem like they’ve aged a lot in the last ten years. As the two sat, Harding’s parents didn’t turn to look but seem to huddle closer.
A group of four men and two women dressed professionally sit at a table at the other end of the room facing the visitors’ gallery, whispering among themselves while looking at papers. They’re the Parole Board. There’s also a female stenographer in her fifties seated off to the side waiting for proceedings to begin. Once seated, the guard that escorted Blair and Jerry went to a man in the middle and whispers in his ear. A gray-haired man sitting in the middle nods the guard motions to another on the right who opens a door.
In comes John Harding in a green prison uniform. Blair remembers him as a scary looking man, dark hair and complexion, tall and solidly built. His hands are massive. During the court case, Blair anguished over the thought of what this brute had done to Tim, who physically was the opposite in every way. Now Harding seems fatter than he was back then, he’s older, and in some ways doesn’t seem as nasty as Blair remembered him.
‘No, Harding isn’t scary anymore, he’s kind of common,’ Blair thought.
A man on the panel with gray hair suddenly speaks, “This is the parole hearing of John Michael Harding, who was convicted on the 23rd of April 2009, for the first-degree murder of Timothy John Bronson at the Supreme Court in Melbourne. Mr. Harding has currently served the minimum parole period of ten years, out of a twenty-year sentence. We have reviewed the prison records and reports on Mr. Harding already and find that overall, he has been behaving satisfactorily. We have heard statements from his parents. Several reports from prison staff are recommending him for parole. A few others are more cautious, which is understandable given the circumstances of the case. Does the applicant wish to address the panel?”
Harding’s lawyer said, “He does wish to make a statement.”
“Then please stand Mr. Harding and make your statement,” the gray-haired man said.
Harding stands, but he keeps staring at the table the whole time, not daring to glance at the parole board even. His hands shake, and a bead of sweat appears on the man’s prominent forehead. Then he begins in a deep voice saying quietly and without confidence.
“I’m sorry for what I did; I never meant it to happen. As I said in the trial, it was an accident. Things just got outta hand is all, and I was very drunk at the time. I promise if you parole me that it’ll be different. I’ve been attending anger management classes, going to AA regular, and talking to the prison psychologist. He says I have come a long way. I won’t do it again, that I promise.”
A female panel member cuts in, saying, “Your psychologist is Dr. Jenkins, right?”
“Yes, Ma’am, I see him once a fortnight,” Harding said, nodding.
“We’ve read his report, and while he does say you’ve made progress, he doesn’t recommend your release. Do you know why he’d say that?”
“I think so, ma’am, but I swear I don’t think like that no more. Love thy neighbor as you love yourself. That’s what Reverend Watkins tells us in church and AA.”
Another man on the panel who’s sitting to the left the gray-haired man asks, “What about the man you killed? What have you to say about him?”
Harding grimaces. “Like I said, it was an accident, sir, a stupid drunken fight. I didn’t mean to kill him, just rough him up,” he said with noticeable sweat on his forehead.
The gray-haired man then asked with one eyebrow raised, “You do understand what First Degree Murder is, Mr. Harding? According to a jury of your peers, they think you premeditated the crime and set out to kill the victim on purpose. Are you saying they’re wrong?”
Harding stands silent for a moment with a deep frown, his eyes boring holes into the table. Blair realizes then he’s reading something on his lawyer’s legal pad.
“I’m not saying anything, sir. I don’t really understand all that legal stuff,” Harding said, never glancing at the panel.
“Is there anything else you want to say to us?”
Harding shakes his head, so the gray-haired man told him to sit, so he did. During the whole exchange, the criminal’s lawyer sat still scribbling on his pad, not betraying what he thought of his client one iota.
Blair has a heavy feeling that just seems to grow more intense with every passing minute. After all this time, Harding still has no idea of the immense damage he caused in Blair’s life and others.
The gray-haired man suddenly said, “Do we have any family members of the victim here?”
Blair raises a hand, the only one in the room.
“Ah, yes,” the gray-haired man said and nods at Blair, “Step up to the podium.”
Therefore, Blair stands with all eyes except Harding’s watching. The criminal just keeps his head slumped forward, looking at his hands.
“Can you please state your name and relationship to the victim Timothy Bronson?”
“I’m Blair Nash; I was the partner of Tim Bronson when he was murdered.”
The gray-haired man looked down his nose at Blair. “Aren’t there any family members of Mr. Bronson present?”
“Tim had a difficult family life as a teen and lived on the streets from sixteen onwards until he went to University. His family had little to do with him after that, and they didn’t attend the trial or even his funeral. So they won’t be coming today.”
The gray-haired man nods as if he’s heard it all before. “How long did you know Mr. Bronson?”
“At the time of his murder, I had known Tim for eight years and been his intimate partner for six. We lived together as a couple for five of those years. We hoped to get married one day.”
“Can you tell us how the victim’s death has impacted your life?”
Blair’s eyes close hard for a moment, and those slender hands grip the podium firmly. The words ‘the victim’ make Blair sick inside. These bureaucrats have already diminished Tim. Blair sighs profoundly and takes a deep breath, grasping his hands to stop them shaking.
“The pain of Tim’s loss is as raw to me today as it was when he was killed. Tim was my lover, my partner, and my best friend. I loved him more than life itself. Tim was my soul mate. After the trial, I went into a deep depression and required medication and psychiatric help myself. I couldn’t work, and I nearly went broke. Not a day goes by I don’t think of Tim and what we had and what I lost. Sir, I ask humbly you deny Mr. Harding parole. By his own words, he thinks Tim’s death was an accident. He killed Tim by beating him with a crowbar to the head. That’s not an accident—it’s murder. This brute has no remorse for what he did. His only remorse is in getting caught.”
“The Parole Board is well aware of the circumstances of Mr. Bronson’s death, and I ask you to refrain from such remarks in future…” the gray-haired man stops talking abruptly as a guard comes up to the table and leans to whisper something to the seated parole board. Blair hears the gray-haired man say, “But the hearing has begun…” Then after a little more heated whispering, he said with a sigh, “Alright, let them in.”
Blair’s confused about what’s happening, but the guard turns and waves to another on the door to the public gallery. The guard opens the door, and to Blair and Jerry’s utter surprise, familiar faces begin entering the visitors’ gallery. They’re friends from back home. There’s about twenty of them, and Blair breaks into tears watching them enter and take seats giving Blair and Jerry a wave as they do.
One of them called Pat rushed up to Blair and said in a low voice, “Sorry, darling, but we didn’t know about this until a few hours ago. Why didn’t you tell us about it, we loved Tim too? He was like family to us.”
Blair must’ve blushed bright red, which satisfied Pat’s immediate need for punishment for the omission. Out of grief, Blair had thought nobody would care anymore and was wrong. Here Blair thought others would forget about Tim. Nevertheless, Blair had forgotten just how many lives he had touched. Therefore, Blair had let friends down by not allowing them to show their support and outrage for what had happened to Tim. The slender figure shakes, feeling so ashamed at that moment.
“I’m sorry, Pat, I should’ve told you, but how did you find out?” Blair said with a brief hug.
Pat glances at Jerry, who gives Blair a weak smile. The gray-haired man suddenly shouted breaking our reverie.
“Can we have some order here… Take your seats and quieten down!”
The guard is whispering to the board again, and Blair hears another annoyed sigh from the gray-haired man.
Once the guard steps aside, the gray-haired man said, “It seems the prison switchboard is jammed with people ringing to voice their disapproval at the idea Mr. Harding should be paroled.”
Blair smiled. They all laughed. All except the guards who still looked bored and the members of the Parole Board, and, of course, Harding and his parents.
The gray-haired man then barks, “Could a representative of the visitors now entered go and call off these well-meaning people. We’ve got the point.”
Pat motions to a couple at the rear who leave pulling phones from their pockets. The gray-haired man then set his eyes on Blair, asking, “Have you finished your statement to the Parole Board.”
“Yes, sir,” Blair said.
“Is there anyone else who wants to say something,” he said, then sighed as eighteen hands went up. “Very well. Come forward one at a time and keep it brief.”
Stories of Tim filled the dingy room for the next hour, and the love everyone felt for him was apparent. What Tim had done for them and how he helped them in his job as a social worker. To hear their grief at his senseless death expressed so eloquently brought Blair to tears many times. They recalled where they were and what they are doing when they found out. Most of all, they told the board the fear it made them feel to this day.
There’s a quick recess where the Parole Board decides if they would grant or deny Harding release from jail. Thankfully, they deny parole. They’re all quickly ushered out of the room so the next case can start. In fact, they didn’t stop ushering the group until they were out the front gate feeling the cold wind blow.
It all happened so quick, but the smiles on the faces around Blair confirmed they had won this time. Pat was effusive in his enthusiasm, declaring loudly, “If they think we ambushed them this year, wait until next year when we’ll be far better organized.”
He followed it with a dirty stare in Blair’s direction, which elicits more apologizes. Blair may never live it down.
‘Here, I thought I had to face this alone, and I learned I was wrong. I needed my friends to help me through this,’ Blair thought.
As they’re talking, Blair feels a tap on the shoulder, and everyone’s surprise it’s Harding’s parents. They all fall silent, as no one’s that rude to celebrate in the face of the old couple’s loss. Despite what their son had done. His mother had been crying, and his father looks like a ghost of a man. They both must’ve been in their seventies. They look so old.
“Can we speak, Mr. Nash?” Harding’s father asked quietly.
“Sure, if you promise to keep it civil,” Blair said, glancing one to the other.
“We can if you and your friends can as well,” he shot back, his eyes hard, and Pat nods in agreement.
“I’m Ken Harding, and this is my wife June,” Ken gestured to his wife.
“I’m Blair. This is Jerry and Pat, oh, and this is the gang.”
To his surprise, Ken shakes all their hands in turn, the firm grip of a working person still evident.
Harding’s mother then said, “I always wanted to talk to you, but during the trial, it just never seemed right. It didn’t seem proper given what John had done. I’m sorry this is ten years too late.”
Jerry then said half-jokingly, “Better late than never, I suppose.”
“What’s on your mind?” Blair asks seriously, hitting Jerry lightly in the ribs with his elbow.
Ken said, “We just wanna say how sorry we are for what happened. We didn’t raise our son like that, I assure you. We raised him to respect all people, as it says in the bible. There are no gay haters in our family…cept for John.”
June then added, “You have to understand his Aunt, his sister, is, in fact, a lesbian and has lived with her partner for twenty-five years now. No one in our family has ever seen anything wrong with that. However, when John was seventeen, he fell in with the wrong crowd, and he changed. Became mean about a whole bunch of things I never heard him utter a word about before. Suddenly he hated foreigners, black people, and gay people. I thought he’d grow out of it, but he never did.” She closed her eyes hard for a moment bowing her head; she was trying to catch herself. When June opened her eyes, tears ran down her cheeks. With her voice faltering a little, she said, “If there were something we could do to take it back, we would. Nevertheless, we can’t. Please forgive us.”
That’s when Blair starts hugging the parents of the man who murdered Tim.
‘Strange day, eh,’ Blair thought.
He has to admit he never really thought of them much. However, it brought it home to Blair again that he wasn’t the only one suffering over what had happened. The relief in their faces at just being able to apologize to Blair, one small act of love, filled Blair with hope for the first time in a long time.
Whenever he meets straight people who treat him or any gay man like a human being rather than something to fear, it always gives Blair a bit of a shock because it just isn’t that common. When that comes from the parents of the man who committed the ultimate act of homophobia, it hits Blair like a sledgehammer. So, in some kind of weird group hug, they all cried together. Not just for Tim, but also for June and Ken, and maybe even for Harding too.
Blair learned a lot today, but even then, none of it will ever bring back the man he loved so deeply.