I was 26 when I left my work as a country parson to take up the prestigious position as the Minister of Cheltenham Church of Christ Victoria. This Church had the reputation of being a very large and alive Church. But that was a mirage. The reality was quite different as this young country parson was soon to discover. The life of a suburban Minister has some real surprises.
I guess I felt more embarrassed and overwhelmed over Millicent and Mike Angelico than either of them would have realised. It was strange how it worked really but it was devastating to me. I never thought I would lose my temper so thoroughly as I did on that day. Mike Angelico was not as angelic as his name suggests. Mike was a mean and hard man. He was short, dark, in his mid-fifties, and very much overweight with a black beard, and black eyebrows that met in the middle of his forehead. He looked mean. As a matter of fact, from the first time I met him he appeared to me, except for his short stature, to be like Brutus, that big, dark, mean fellow we have seen in the Popeye cartoons. Mike Angelico however was short. He was a driver for a waste collection company and drove a huge truck up back alleys of firms to dump waste bins and to take away bins that were filled with rubbish.
If Mike was overweight, tough and mean, Millie was just the opposite. She was short, slim, fragile and quiet. She used to come into church after everybody else was seated and just slip in somewhere where there was a vacant seat near the back. I took a long time to get to know her when I came to Cheltenham because she always came in after I was in place in the pulpit and she was the first out, sometimes leaving the church even before I got to the door. Furthermore she would sit in church wearing sunglasses. I guess because our lovely white church on the top of the hill was surrounded by tall stained glass windows and I guess the light must have been too bright for her. I noticed from our church membership cards that Millie was the daughter of a market gardener in the area, that they had two children, both of whom had married and were living on the other side of Melbourne. Mike never came near the church.
However, there was a strange attachment between the two of them. Millie would speak to very few people and as soon as the Benediction was sung she would be out before anybody could speak to her, through our wide foyer and out the doors under the high white tower where Mike would be waiting for her outside. He would always wait where the drive curved around the lawn facing the front of the church with his back to the highway, facing the front doors of the church waiting for her to come out. Millie was always first out and he immediately took her by the hand and they walked quickly together around the side of the church and up the back to the car park and away. As several months went by I got to know all the key members of the church, but not Millicent. Most Sunday mornings she was out of church and away before I ever could have a word with her.
So I adopted a new habit. As soon as the congregation began the Benediction I would shoot up the aisle as quickly as possible and be there before she came out of the double doors of the church leading into the big foyer and headed for the doors underneath the big white tower.
That was how I got to speak to her but she never stayed or hesitated. I would hold her hand trying to delay her to start some conversation and when I did indicate that I would like to come round to visit her she just simply asked me not to. She would prefer it if I didn’t call.
I didn’t receive many knock backs from people when I asked to visit them, and so I naturally wondered what it was that held Millie back. She seemed a decent enough woman and the other older members in the church knew her well.
As the months went by the pieces gradually fitted into the story. Everybody had warned her against the marriage. Mike was a Catholic and a heavy drinker. But Millie was a headstrong young girl and was quite determined to change him. The rest of the older women doubted if she ever managed to do anything like that. Mike didn’t show any signs of being a changed man. I was talking one day to Micky Augustine. She was a tall, thin, sad-looking woman herself but very deeply sensitive and a woman of great understanding. When visiting her and trying to support her while she attended Al Anon, and as I tried to find help in dealing with her very difficult husband, I asked if she knew Millicent and Mike Angelico.
Micky said “As a matter of fact I’ve been wanting to talk about Millie. I think she has the same problem that I have. That’s why she wears the dark glasses.” I looked at Micky in a rather stunned sort of way. “What do you mean? Isn’t it because there’s something wrong with her eyes and she can’t stand the bright light?”
Micky looked at me scornfully. “You have to look behind the sunglasses if you want to see what a woman is really like. My guess is that she wears sunglasses to disguise the fact that she’s got black eyes given her by a drunken husband, just like mine.” The thought that Mike might have beaten Millie had never occurred to me. The next Sunday I held her hand as she went to slip out the front and this time tried to see behind the sunglasses. I think Micky was right. Her face was very heavily covered with make-up. Could it be that she was putting on make-up heavily to disguise bruises? She quickly slipped my hand and was out the front door walking across the front of the church to the circle of the lawn where Mike stood waiting for her. He took her hand and they walked hand in hand across the front of the church and around the side and up to the car park. They seemed so devoted to each other. He always came to pick her up … and yet?
A few weeks later the same scene was repeated. I slipped out of church at the beginning of the Benediction just ahead of Millie as she came out through the double doors of the church and walked across the wide foyer with me. I had already looked. Mike was outside waiting for her. This time I didn’t let her slip her hand but held on tightly and looked at her, trying to see behind her dark glasses. Her face was heavily made up again. I said to her softly “Did Mike do that to you?” She shook her head vigorously, “No, I fell.”
A week or so later I was sitting in the pulpit gazing out at the congregation after the first hymn and prayer of invocation when I saw Millie slip into the back wearing an overcoat with the collar turned up and her dark glasses on as usual. She sat against the rear wall which, like the rest of the church, was painted white and therefore she actually sat in a silhouette in the bright church. And as I gazed at her I realised one side of her face was swollen and out of alignment. That morning Millie slipped out during the last hymn and I didn’t have a chance to see her but I was sure her face was swollen.
The next morning I went across to the Cheltenham police station and had a yarn with my friend Sergeant Evans. “Sergeant, I’d like you to drop round to Mike Angelico’s place. They live at 34 McLaurin Parade – it’s a weatherboard house. I have reason to believe that Mike Angelico is systematically battering his wife. They tell me he likes the wine and makes his own at home and I’m told that he’s on the slops on Fridays night and Saturday and then always bashes his wife. I’ve seen her badly battered. Yesterday her face was badly swollen and her jaw seemed twisted. I am worried that he is going to really damage her badly. Could you go round and check out the scene. I’m quite sure if you arrived he’d change his behaviour.”
I could tell by his body language that Sergeant Evans didn’t want to have anything to do with it. As I was talking he was scribbling on the police blotter two letters, “DD” and was writing them over and over again. I knew what he was thinking. “DD” stood for “drunk and disorderly” but it also stood for “domestic dispute”. Sergeant Evans looked up, “Look, I don’t want to seem hard, but the police don’t want to get involved with what happens in a man’s house. If no one else outside the family is hurt it’s none of our business.” I remonstrated with him, “But – he’s beating her. I know he is. I’ve seen the injuries. I’d be prepared to make a statement.”
Sergeant Evans replied, “Calm down a bit. There are some things the police can do and there are some things the police can’t do. In this case she is not making any complaint and we’ve got no right to invade the privacy of a man’s home. I’m sorry there is nothing we can do, but …” and here he paused for some time, “but if you are so insistent I’ll put it to the boys and we’ll drive past this house next Friday night and during Saturday several times pretty slowly and we’ll look over, and if he sees us he’ll get the picture that we’re interested. But we can’t go in you understand. Unless there’s a formal complaint lodged against him there’s nothing we can do to intervene in a domestic dispute.”
I left the police station thinking about a system where a person’s house is regarded as a private palace and no one has the right to interfere, not even if one member is being bullied and cowed and injured.
I smouldered over Sergeant Evans’ response during the week but hoped that somehow or other the quiet crawl-by of a police car a couple of times might bring Mike to his senses. I knew if I went to see Mike and had a man-to-man chat he would only take it out on Millie and that was the last thing I wanted.
The situation was answered for me the following Sunday in a most unexpected way. I got to the front door of the church and glanced out and there Mike was standing on the curve of the concrete where the lawn was surrounded by the driveway which so many bridal cars found so attractive as they drove up to the front doors of the church. He was standing there looking dark and brooding. Millie had obviously had another bad night.
Because Mick Augustine had stopped her in her seat and she hadn’t yet come out into the foyer of the church, other people had sort of moved past her and were blocking up the foyer. I was shaking hands and speaking to people and I could see down the end a very agitated Millie wanting to get past, but a very determined Mickey Augustine was telling her that she really should come with her to Al -Anon and learn how to handle a difficult husband who became aggressive when drunk.
Millie was looking most agitated, wanting to walk away but Mickey realised this was the moment when Millie had to face up to her future.
As I was speaking to the people ahead of her, there was suddenly a bellowing sound from outside and several people who just passed me and were about to step down the steps beneath the double doors of the big white tower turned round and said “There’s a very strange man out there yelling.” They didn’t know who he was because most of the members of our church had never seen Millie with her husband. But I knew who it was. And over the hubbub in the foyer of all the people chattering as they came out of church I could hear a bellowing voice, “Come out here you bitch. Get out here at once.”
I could see that Millie heard as well because she was pulling away from Mickey.
At that point I did something I now regret. I lost my cool and rushed down the front steps, and yelled back at Mike as he stood there. “You get round to the car park you. I want to come round and speak to you.” Mike yelled back at me across the drive, “You send her out here, mate, or she’ll get what for.” That did it! I strode across towards Mike yelling out at the top of my voice, “Get round the back you mongrel. I’ll be coming around to thrash you. Just wait ‘till I say goodbye to these people and then I’m going to come round and thrash the living daylights out of you. Get round there now you rat. I’ve stood enough from you. As soon as I’ve spoken to these people I’ll be round to deal with you and you are going to get the thrashing of your life.”
I was carried away with the forcefulness of my own speech. And to my surprise, as I advanced across the roadway towards him Mike started to walk backwards, then turned and started to walk more quickly as my voice mounted in its level of intensity and then as I started to yell, he started to run. He went round the corner and up towards the car park as fast as his fat legs would carry him.
Millie burst out of the tower double doors and ran round after him, sobbing already.
I said goodbye to the congregation as quickly as I could but we had two morning services and I had another service about to start. I slipped into my office and shut the door and rang him at home. He answered the phone and I simply said, “Mike, I want to see you. I’ll be coming around as soon as the second Service is finished and I want to have this out, man to man, with you.”
That Sunday before lunch after the second Service I drove my car round to his house. I wasn’t sixty five then, I was twenty eight and still fit, playing football every week and running every night. And boxing had been a sport of mine. Mike was not home. Millie said that he had to go out. I thought he may have fled.
The yard of the house, both back and front, was messy. Mike had been digging long trenches and outside on the front nature strip of the house were great piles of terracotta agricultural pipes which had been off-loaded from a truck. What with winter coming, Mike apparently wanted to drain both the back yard and the front lawn of his house. There were piles of dirt everywhere.
Millie begged me not to come again. “You’ll only make it worse. I’ve lived with Mike now all these years and I can take it. I’m a pretty resilient person you know and it’s tough but I don’t want our kids or anybody at the church to know. Please don’t come back again.”
For Millie’s sake I decided I wouldn’t come back. It was not that I was frightened of a toe to toe with Mike because I felt at heart he was an absolute coward and I had long determined that I would get the first punch in and make it hard.
But when Millie came to church the next Sunday it was quite obvious. He hadn’t laid a hand on her. And on the next Sunday she came, and there was not a mark on her face and she didn’t wear sunglasses. And after church she chatted for a while with Mickey Augustine about Al-Anon. As Millie went out that day I simply said to her, “How is everything with Mike?” She giggled like a young teenager. “You wouldn’t believe it, but a week ago he was working on top of one of those big containers on the back of his truck. He stepped backwards off the waste bin and missed his step, and he’s broken his thigh, poor dear. He’s home on crutches. He’s plastered up to the hip and it takes him all his time to get out of bed. He hasn’t touched a drop for two weeks now. Even before the accident he had stopped drinking. I think your coming around to see him did something to him.”
That afternoon I thought if coming around and shouting at Mike had done something for him then we ought to encourage him, perhaps do something to confirm him in his new habits. I didn’t know much about laying agricultural pipes but I knew that he wouldn’t be able to lay agricultural pipes for months and if the trenches were going to be open all winter they would just fill up with water and their front lawn and back yard would be an absolute quagmire.
I rang Stanley Shepphard , one of our market gardeners, and told him Mike’s situation. Stanley was a good friend of mine and husband of Jennifer who led the Lowanna Singers. I knew if anyone knew about laying agricultural pipes and draining off a property, he would. And not only that, Stanley certainly wasn’t afraid of hard work. I told him how Mike’s garden was dug up and he had no hope of getting the pipes in and asked if Stanley could give me some time tomorrow on my day off. I thought I’d go round and lay the pipes, but I needed someone to help me who knew what they were doing.
And anyhow, “I’m hopeful that somehow or other we might get through to Mike and win him over.” Stanley readily agreed and I made arrangements to pick him up in my car and we would travel round at eight o’clock the following morning.
Actually, I had forgotten how big Stanley was. He was a real mountain of a man, over six foot four and broad as a double door across his shoulders. He was a lovely, gentle giant, a good friend and wonderful husband and market gardener. He’s just the man to handle piles of agricultural pipe. I rang the doorbell in McLaurin Parade and when Millie answered the door asked if we could speak to Mike. I hadn’t realised that Stanley was standing behind me like a huge standover merchant. I could hear the conversation going on in the bedroom and then Mike hobbled to the door on crutches. He took one look at me and one look at big Stanley behind me and he turned on the crutches and went faster than any man on crutches has ever gone, down the hall and out into the kitchen. “Mike … Mike … We’re here to help you. Mike … ” I heard the fly-wire door on the kitchen at the back slam shut as Mike went through it.
I nodded to Stanley, “Around the side, Stan and don’t let him pass.” Stan whipped around the side way and I went through the house and out the back door. So it was that at the back gate by the garage Mike found himself caught between Stanley and myself.
Putting out my hand I said “It’s alright Mike. Stanley and I have come round to put in your agricultural pipes. I reckon with that plaster cast on your leg you won’t get a chance to put them in this winter. Stan and I thought we might put them in for you. If you’ve got a big barrow it won’t take Stan long to bring in all the screenings and we’ll soon dump them over these pipes. If you just tell us where you want us to start, we’ll probably have the thing done before lunch.”
Mike just stood there on his crutches looking as if he had been struck dumb. I nodded to Stanley and quickly picked up a piece of agricultural pipe in each hand and started walking up the drive. Stanley bent over, loaded twelve pieces into the crook of one arm and showed me how to do it properly as he walked up. I carefully laid my two pieces of agricultural pipe in the end of the furthermost drain, carefully measuring out the distance between them. As I stepped back to survey my two pieces Stanley walked up with twelve agricultural pipes in the crook of one arm and then, tossing them, started to walk down the row dropping them one after the other with deadly accuracy in a line. It took him about three trips and he had most of the back yard already covered. By ten thirty that morning Stanley had shovelled the last of the screenings into the drains and we started shovelling the dirt over the top.
By lunchtime the job was finished. Mike had just stayed there on his crutches watching us coming backwards and forwards, hour after hour. He shook his head saying to us, “I dunno what to say to you blokes. At my work if we wanna say thanks to somebody we give ‘em a carton of bottled beer, but I guess neither of you fellows would want a dozen bottles.” I indicated that neither Stanley nor I drank and we didn’t need any gift to say thanks. He just looked at me and stuck out his hand. “Thanks” he said. “Thanks. I’ll never touch her again” he said. We had never said a word about Millie and yet somehow he was making a promise that was as deep as anything he had ever promised. And he never did.
I wish I could tell you that Mike became a totally changed person, that he became a Christian and a member of my church. That never happened. But he did stop drinking and he did treat his wife well. He had been converted from his old behaviour patterns, but he had not been converted to Christ which could have made all the difference to his life. But Millie took upon herself a new sense of radiance and learned to laugh once more.
That night in my study I spent some time writing up my journal and looking out of the window at the never ending stream of cars stopping at the traffic lights at the corner of Nepean Highway and Chesterville Road, that wide intersection that was dominated by the lovely white Church with the high white tower noting down the events of another day as a suburban minister.