Led Zeppelin is blaring through the speakers over the clatter of cups and dishes being gathered for washing. It’s late on a Friday afternoon at Bank Corner Cafe in Newcastle West and staff are hustling to finish the work day.
But Jordi Bates isn’t paying any attention. We’re deep in conversation, about the day his life changed forever.
December 14, 2016. The day his wife, Jennifer Bates, on a Vespa scooter, waiting to proceed around the Cowper Street roundabout in Wickham, died in a collision with a vehicle.
The alleged driver of the vehicle has been charged with manslaughter and the matter is still before the court.
“It’s just an awful thing to think about and remember,” Jordi says. “Every day I think about that morning and what happened.”
“When you think of where she got hit and how she got hit, you know, we are talking a matter of one to two seconds probably,” Bates says in answer to a question about how he remembers that fateful day.
“If she’d been two seconds later she would have been behind that spot where the driver came through. If she was two seconds earlier, she would have been in front of that spot, she would have been into the roundabout.
“She was in exactly the wrong spot at exactly the wrong time.”
A FULL LIFE
She was in exactly the wrong spot at exactly the wrong time.Jordi Bates, on his wife's tragic death
Jennifer Bates was 36 years old when she died. Born in England, the Phelan family moved to Australia when she was three years old. She attended primary school in East Maitland, then All Saints College in Maitland.
She joined the St Peters Anglican Church choir as a youngster, and continued singing in choirs throughout her life.
She was a doer.
She was a senior project manager and team leader for NSW Public Works, and a registered architect, based in Newcastle. For the last two years she led the team designing the $34million Hunter Sports High School redevelopment.
She was volunteer coordinator of the BZE (Beyond Zero Emissions) Team Newcastle, helping to organise the bulk purchase of solar panels and storage batteries as well as organising launch events for the organisation’s Renewable Energy Superpower plan and Electric Vehicles report.
She had volunteered for Newcastle LiveSites. She established yoga classes for all of the government employees in the office block in Newcastle.
She enjoyed sewing, knitting, painting, crocheting, gardening and pottery.
“She was a busy girl,” Jordi says. “She wasn’t the kind of person who liked to lounge around the house on a weekend. She would often put me to shame in everything she was able to achieve.”
As Jordi’s sister Juliette noted in her eulogy at Jennifer’s funeral: “Although her life was way too short, she packed in an extraordinary amount of living”.
Drew Varnum, from NSW Public Works, also spoke at her funeral. He noted, “Jen was big on goals . . . ‘To Do’ lists as well . . . she’d normally fill one out most evenings, before leaving work and heading off to choir practice, a life drawing class, a sewing class, a pottery class, maybe a gym session or a meeting to do with one of her many voluntary roles. It was rare that she hadn’t ticked off most of the list the next evening before drafting another one.”
Jennifer met Jordi in Sydney in 2003. When they met, they were both living in the inner-city Glebe, working in Pyrmont, and involved in dragonboating and salsa dancing. Almost inevitably, they became a pair.
Their journey together had twists and turns – Jen spent her fourth year of university in Tasmania; they both spent a year volunteering abroad, but in different countries, with Jennifer in the Philippines and Jordi in Vietnam.
But eventually, they settled down in Newcastle, buying a home in Wickham.
They were far from finished in terms of travel, visiting Europe, New Zealand, Japan, South-East Asia, India and Fiji.
And they spent 2014 in Bhutan, with Jordi, a water engineer, working as part of the Australian Volunteers for International Development, and Jennifer coming along and working as a volunteer for several organisations.
Jennifer became deeply immersed in Bhutan, writing a blog (jeninbhutan) and working in part on a proposed new complex for the Gross National Happiness Committee.
“She obviously got into the Bhutanese way of life," Jordi says. “It’s the only official Buddhist country in the world. Jen had always associated with Buddhism anyway. She was very keen to intellectually and spiritually immerse herself in Buddhist culture and Buddhism when she was over there.”
There were lasting effects from Bhutan, with Jennifer’s interest in Buddhism piqued permanently.
On the lighter side, she fell in love with a friend’s particular cat in Bhutan.
As Jordi tells it: “On the plane from Bhutan, after being away from Australia for a year, I remember Jen telling me, ‘how about we get a cat when we get back to Australia’. I remember thinking, ‘are you serious?’ I grew up with pets, for me, l loved the idea. I just never expected Jen to suggest the idea.
“After we got back, on the day of my birthday, we went to the RSPCA in Rutherford and got ourselves a little kitten, a little male ginger, who is now a big male ginger, two-and-a-half years on.”
Jennifer instantly took to her new cat. The couple chose to give him an unusual name – Emadatsi – which made perfect sense to them.
The national dish in Bhutan is chilli and cheese, which is eaten frequently and can be quite spicy.
“Take a pot, put a lot of cheese in there, put a lot of chilli in there, mix it over some heat and that’s how it’s done,” Jordi says. “In Bhutanese it’s called ema datsi: ‘ema’ being chilli and ‘datsi’ being cheese.
“You can’t go to Bhutan and not be surrounded by emadatsi. We thought it would be a nice name for a cat. We call him ED for short.”
Emadatsi is doing fine.
“He’s happy and healthy,” Jordi says. “It’s just me and him at home now. He’s a happy cat. It’s important for me to keep him happy and healthy, ‘cause Jen would have wanted that.
“I am quite lucky. He’s a good cat.”
Emadatsi is only one of many reminders of the life shared by Jordi and Jen. They took adventurous holidays together, they enjoyed bushwalking, restaurant dining, simple walks and picnics.
Most mornings would start with Jordi brewing cups of coffee for Jen and himself.
Jordi has hardly used the coffee machine for himself since his wife’s death.
“For me, making that coffee of a morning, I’d do it for the two of us, that is what it was about,” he says. “That’s the fun, of making it, the routine of how you do it, enjoy making it.
“On Fridays we would go for coffee – me on my bicycle, she on the Vespa. Sometimes we would come in together on the Vespa. More often than not we’d meet here at Bank Corner.”
In August, Jordi attended a fund-raising screening of An Inconvenient Sequel, a documentary follow-up to Al Gore’s mission to battle climate change by attempting to convince government leaders around the globe to invest in renewable energy.
“It was hard for me at times to watch that movie because I remember watching An Inconvenient Truth [the first doco with Al Gore on climate change] with Jen and her response to that movie - how passionate and emotional she was, and the discussions we had after the movie.
“There are all these little moments when it does become raw again.”
Jennifer Bates’ passion for making the world a better place left a strong impression on her friends, colleagues and family.
Shortly after she died Jordi and Jen’s parents (Kathryn Bennett and Ken Phelan) chose to keep her legacy alive through a fund-raising campaign in her honour.
It was decided the funds raised would go to BZE, to assist in research for the Zero Carbon Industry series of projects. The initial fund-raising target of $20,000 was reached in less than 10 days, so a new target was set at $30,000 and reached within weeks.
Most of the funds went to the first Zero Carbon Industry report on achieving zero carbon cement (BZE figures show cement-making contributes 8 per cent of global carbon emissions), and that report was dedicated to Jennifer Bates.
Jordi was fully behind the funds being raised in Jen’s honour going to BZE projects.
“I think they have proven their credentials,” he says. “These guys are no wackos. They are not crazy ideas.”
Jordi and Jennifer were proudly part of a growing organisation locally.
“There is a strong environmental movement in Newcastle, fostered by the fact it’s such a strong coal industry area,” Jordi says. “There is a reaction to that.”
Jennifer was closely involved with the Newcastle movement, actively taking part in a call to action initiative for one of the first bulk purchases of solar storage batteries by consumers in Australia.
“To me, it was a surprise how effective a community can be,” Jordi says.
It was announced at her funeral that Jordi, along with Jennifer’s parents, were also establishing the Jennifer Bates Memorial Award with the NSW Department of Finance, Services and Innovation, to provide professional development for a young woman working within the department.
Jennifer was popular at work and outside of work. She was enthusiastic about many things, and genuine in her friendships.
While Jordi and Jen had much in common, there’s always more to learn. At his wife’s funeral, Jordi realised there was even more to Jen than he knew.
Asked if he had learned more about his wife after her death, he responded: “Jen’s ability to listen, that was something I didn’t recognise or appreciate enough in our time together. But I think there are a lot of Jen’s friends who have a very considered, quiet approach to life, and she was such a good support to her friends and colleagues at work.
“I’ve learned more about how much she was appreciated. That’s been a wonderful thing, but also very sad. Sometimes I think maybe I didn’t appreciate that enough.”
Among the Bates’ favourite places was Shepherds Hill, where they would grab an impromptu picnic and appreciate the view, maybe spot a whale, whenever the opportunity arose.
Jordi recalled the day he proposed to Jen at Shepherds Hill, when he surreptiously prepared a picnic and drinks in advance to surprise her and then called to invite her to join him. The day was turning dark and cold, with a threatening storm approaching, and Jen could not figure out why Jordi wanted her to bicycle up to Shepherds Hill to meet him. But she did.
The couple were married at Shepherds Hill on October 15, 2011, complete with Brazilian drummers, purple bridesmaid dresses (Jen’s favourite colour was purple), a profiterole tower and a salsa bridal waltz.
Sunday will be their sixth wedding anniversary. Jordi will not feel like celebrating. He will probably spend the day reflecting on their good times, maybe sit down at home and go through their wedding album.
All of Jen’s clothes still hang in the wardrobe, a generous amount of purple always reminding him of her favourite colour.
Living alone is still a new experience for Jordi. “I haven’t been alone for 13 years,” he says. “Everything falls back on you. You come home to a dark house. You’ve got to think about making dinner, feeding the cat, washing up. It’s a bit sad and depressing.”
Jordi sought counselling after Jen’s death, then took a break for several months. Lately, he’s returned for “a system check”.
While he is focused and firm in our conversation – which includes an extensive discussion of the day his wife died – Jordi admits to moments of tears, by himself and with others.
“I get a bit teary,” he says. “For me, that’s vindication, this an important, traumatic experience. Being at the crash site where Jen got killed, being at Shepherds Hill where we got married, being at the cemetery in Lake Macquarie. Just sitting there, being quiet, you know, getting emotional, just letting it all out.
“I don’t need to do that every day. They become less frequent the more you go through the grieving process. Initially, it was every couple of days. Now, it’s every couple of months.
“I think that’s a healthy thing. I’ve told a lot of people I seek out these opportunities as well. I don’t want to pretend it didn’t happen. I don’t want to have that emotion not come to the surface. Sometimes I want to do it by myself. Sometimes with friends and family around me.
“You need to do that. It’s a very dangerous thing not to do that.
“People who know about grief will tell you the same thing. That’s an important part of my grieving process.
“On the other days, I make sure I am fit and healthy and happy as I can be.”
It’s hard to get past the event – the Bates home is less than 100 metres from the crash site.
Jordi rides his bicycle right through the collision point every day on his way to work. He can’t help but consider, it could have been him that died not Jen.
“It was a very unusual situation that morning. 90 percent of the time Jen and I would walk out the door together. Jen would sit on her scooter. I would be on my bicycle. We would kiss each other goodbye out the front of our house and we would essentially roll out together to the roundabout, her on the road, me on the footpath.
“We would hop onto that roundabout together about a quarter to nine, 20 to nine or something, and we would both go around the roundabout. So, you know, it’s tragic to think, that spot where we would change course is exactly the spot where she got hit, where she got killed.”
On that fatal day, Jordi had an early meeting and left home before Jen. He was in a meeting when he received a call from a private number and he didn’t pick up. After the meeting he was looking at his phone and saw that he missed three calls from private numbers. It was 10am, the phone rang while he was looking it, and he answered – it was a nurse telling him he needed to go to the John Hunter Hospital immediately.
He remembers the day with great detail, even acknowledging that some of his memories are false memories – they didn’t happen exactly as he thought they did.
“I guess I’ve learnt a lot about what it is to grieve, particularly as a young male,” he says. “It’s a strange thing to class oneself as a widow at 38. No one expects that.
“You also don’t want it to define who you are. When I walk down the street I don’t want people to point out and say, that’s the guy who’s a widow. I don’t want to be defined by Jen’s death. I want her death to be acknowledged. It’s changed me forever, I know that. Anyone who has lost a partner or a child will tell you that . . .
“I’ve found in general I was very, very impressed at sort of how the Newcastle community responded to Jen’s death, how they came together. That was a very powerful, touching event, around the crash site. The massive response at the funeral. That was an incredible experience to live through.
“But I also learned how difficult people in society find it to talk about death in general. I think our society has a lot to learn about facing up to death.
“People respond well to ceremonial opportunities, to come together and grieve together. They are important events.
“What I think we are less good at is openly talking about death and having it as a part of a mature discussion in everyday life. Once those rituals and ceremony are finished, everyone goes back to their everyday life.
“Whereas for me, I don’t. I’m living with this every day. As a society, we don’t talk about it enough. We aren’t prepared for it enough. What it means is when death happens, unplanned death, it’s a very difficult thing for people to accept, to work through.”