The week just past saw two stirring Australian sagas draw to their conclusions. Mary MacKillop, a nun latterly of South Australia, became the nation’s first saint, though a little too late to enjoy her celebrity personally, and Kirsty Fraser-Kirk, a former publicist at tony department store chain David Jones, settled her sexual harassment claim against the company’s ex-chief executive Mark McInnes, albeit at a bit of a discount on her original price tag.
The two events coincided over one memorable weekend, and while MacKillop got the best of the press coverage, it was a close-run thing. Acute observers noted the admirable similarities between the two women. Both had Scottish-sounding names; both were well-groomed; both said they would devote themselves to charitable causes and one of them did.
For this correspondent, however, the Mary-Kirsty alignment brought back deeply personal memories. The precise date is hazy, for reasons that will become clear. It was a writers’ festival in Adelaide, it was hot, and I was standing in a loose circle of literary types, chatting away in innocent daylight, when someone pinched my arse.
I wheeled around to confront the pincher, who now, not unexpectedly, faced me. She grinned widely. She was not a stranger, though I was reasonably confident it was the first time she’d laid hands on my Levi’s. She was a publicist.
I walked away, a little ruffled, and my mobile phone throbbed with an incoming text message. It was from her, its meaning was clear and it was signed with a X. I thought of responding with a mild flirtation of my own, but something told me this would be unwise.
Later it was suggested to me that what I should have done with my phone was take a photograph of the pinch imprint, while it was still fresh. But one never thinks of these things at the time. I was still a relatively young man. And in any event, that thumbprint on my right buttock was about to pale into relative insignificance.
Some two hours later, having composed myself in my mid-range hotel room, I was standing at an Official Function, drink in hand, talking to a Very Famous Australian. As we talked and sipped sauvignon blanc (the pinot grigio craze was not yet upon us), she leaned towards me and placed her hand under my clothing to the point where it touched my undergarment. She mentioned where she was staying, the best hotel in town.
I did not know what to make of this. First the publicist and now the Very Famous Australian, both going for the grope. Perhaps it was because I’d just started using Menage aftershave, which costs under $20 a bottle but punches well above its weight, believe me.
What I did not think to make of it was $37 million. Well, not immediately anyway. Some time later, when I had returned to Sydney, where there are far more lawyers than in Adelaide, I was speaking to a friend who is only an accountant, but has aspirations, and he urged me to file a sexual harassment lawsuit against the Very Famous Australian, for starters.
I was confused but curious. I thought hard about all the other not-so-old men in my situation. (Not long after, when I found myself in the headlines, a colleague declared that the Very Famous Australian was hot and he wished she had groped him, which as contributions to the national debate go was not very helpful.)
How much do you reckon I could get?, I asked my accountant friend. Thirty-seven million, he said, as though the answer was self-evident to anyone properly versed in the law. But, I said, didn’t that bloke who was wrongfully imprisoned for 12 years in Western Australia only get three-and-a-bit million? Yes, he said, and are you telling me your case isn’t at least ten times worse?
And didn’t that bloke in Romania get less than a million after a surgeon mistakenly removed his penis? Well, yes, he said, but don’t forget they also grafted a bit of his arm onto where his penis used to be.
Look, he continued, you’ve got the touching of your undergarment, that’s worth at least 25 million. You’ve got the mention of her hotel room, you’ve got the plying you with a now out-of-fashion white wine…
Oh, I interrupted, I’ve handled much worse. Do not say that again, he said.
OK, I said, but if I sue for such an outlandish amount, an Australian record in fact, won’t independent-minded newspaper columnists like Miranda Devine write that I’m no longer a victim but just another litigious, gold-digging, high-umbrage man egged on by lawyers? Yes she will, he said encouragingly.
OK, I said, I’ll do it but I’ll tell the media that if I do win the lawsuit all the money will go to charity, right? Yes, he confirmed, that would be the right thing to do.
But I won’t actually give any of it to charity, right? I’ll keep it, right? Self-evidently, he said. If you actually get the money it will no longer be possible to give it to charity, will it?
Makes sense to me, I said. And anyway, I’m going to need a nice holiday when all this is over.
Stephen Romei is literary editor of the Australian.