The court is quiet when Tom gets in, which is how he likes it. 7:50. Ten minutes before core time begins, but that doesn’t matter. Time to make a coffee, roll up the sleeves, switch off the mind.
Bollock-Chops on the security desk this morning – not even a nod as Tom passes. Through the office he comes, half a dozen times a day, swinging his keys like some gaoler out of Dickens. Miserable fuck. Cancer of the personality. Just what people need to see when they first come in. Sets them up for what to expect.
Along the corridor to the pass door – 7-1-5-9 – and through to the flexi-machine. He swipes his card. Nice to arrive early like this, when there’s hardly anyone else about. A whole hour before the phones start. Time to catch up a bit on the backlog that’s always there, that never diminishes, that two items get added to for every one that’s finished. Tom thinks of Sisyphus, pushing his boulder up the hill, only to watch the fucker roll down again just as he reaches the top. That was it – day in, day out. Same files, same procedures, same correspondence, same phone calls. Same faces to look at, gossip to hear, buses to catch, meals to cook, clothes to wash. And what for? To keep a roof over, to keep warm and safe between bouts of work, to keep fed and entertained. Same shit on the TV to stupefy you – keep you there, under the thumb, submissive and tractable. Governable. The definition of democracy: your right to choose who to keep you in your place. Pushed down. Controlled.
He walks through to his desk. Murmurs of greeting from one or two others who are already in. Been there a while, from the looks – Deirdre with a used cereal bowl by her monitor, giving her unpaid time freely for the higher causes of law and justice and country. Freda there… retired a short while ago – but back she comes. Can’t keep away. Life suddenly becoming shapeless outside the context of the job. Christ! Can it really end up so fucking empty? A life so devoid of interest or distraction that coming back is the only real alternative? Maybe if you’re an artist or musician. An actor or something. Things worth holding onto. Things with a reason to hold onto. Passion. Expression. Imagination.
But a clerk? A pen-pusher? A paper-shifter?
A fucking hack?
Maybe it was the money. Or the loneliness. Please say it wasn’t the meaning. The definition. The whole fucking shape.
If it got to that stage, it would be the bottle for sure. The meds. A rope over the rafters. A few quick swipes with the Stanley knife. A train crossing with the rails vibrating under your feet. A step off the edge and over. The undiscovered country.
His section is empty. He hangs up his jacket, puts his sandwiches in his drawer, takes his mug to the kitchen and fills it with hot water from the urn. At the far end, by the main filing room, there’s a gaggle of them – Doreen, George, Tracey. They nod to him, then it’s back to sticking the knife into some poor bastard and giving it a couple of good twists. Him, possibly. Anyone was game who had opinions. Fuck ‘em… if it gives meaning to their lives. Back at his desk he spoons coffee in the mug, whitener, sweeteners. He sips it, staring at the blank screen of his monitor, seeing this distorted face looking back, the cabinet behind him full of work, the clock running backwards above it, holiday postcards Blu-Tacked to the wall, a shaft of light from the window. Wednesday. Halfway to the weekend. A couple of days salvaged from it all.
The door opens and another morning wraith drifts in. Gerard. A suit with a grin, Daily Mail under arm, briefcase containing lunch. Slicked grey hair. Professor specs. Looks important, which is the intention. A Court Clerk with a whiff of judiciary shit about the nostrils. Overcoat on, too, for fuck’s sake. It’s twenty-two degrees out there.
“Morning Doreen. Morning George. Morning Tracey.”
“How are we today?”
“Very well, Gerry. How are we?”
Just fuck off. All of you. Fuck off.
He lifts the sliding door on the cabinet and looks at it all. Four stacked shelves of files, arranged in date order, oldest at the top and already going back nearly ten days. Then there’s the stuff on his desk. A stack of correspondence, four days thick. Plus a folder of yesterday’s divorce petitions, which there wasn’t time to do. He switches on the terminal and waits for it to boot. One of his own photos on the desktop – from a demo a few years back. Reclaim the Streets. 5,000 people dancing, drinking and toking on a motorway, black flags fluttering in the breeze, the police looking on in the background, arms folded, totally buffaloed. Anything to wind the fuckers up – though no-one seemed to have noticed it anyway. Probably think it’s Glastonbury or somewhere equally depraved. Hippy-types, rutting in the mud.
Three e-mails. A round-robin joke from one of the other courts on the circuit. Something about a prisoner and an electronic tag. Probably hysterically funny if you had that mindset. Then a reminder from his line manager that she needed his weekly stats, which still weren’t in. Finally, another round-robin from the court manager reminding all staff about the barbecue that evening in the courtyard garden in honour of District Judge Thorneycroft, who was retiring.
Hope to see a good number of you there to wish the Judge well.
Fucking chance of that. Old bastard. No more having to decipher his spidery handwriting. No more having take the shit on his bad days. Better things to do, thanks very much. Most of the others would be going, of course. Bow and scrape. ‘Good luck to you, sir… something we all clubbed together for…’ Touch the forelock. Honour the regiment. Queen and country. Insert the tongue upwards.
He opens the folder of yesterday’s divorce petitions and takes out the first one. A do-it-yourselfer - from someone acting in person, on their own, without a solicitor. Can’t blame them for that, based on some of what gets sent in from solicitors’ offices. Mistakes in spelling the parties’ names, mistakes in the citation of the grounds. Marriage certificates missed out. Unsigned, even. Sometimes, they’d ring up and ask how to fill in certain parts of the form. How do these people ever make it? One day they might be judges.
This one’s hand-written on forms downloaded from the internet. A couple in their early thirties. Seven years married. Three kids under ten. She, a ‘Housewife and Mother’, is petitioning against him, a ‘Shop Manager’. Behaviour cited as grounds, with two full pages of examples. Familiar stuff. Drunkenness. Arguments. Broken furniture. Nights staying out. Lack of money, lack of sex, lack of love and affection. The final straw?
After a particularly violent arguement, the respondent picked up a hammer and threatened to smash the childrens pet tortoise.
Tom has a very clear image of the incident. The hammer raised, the testudinae in question poised unwittingly on the lino for the final matter-disgorging blow – unable to run if it wanted to. The children cowering under the table. The wife at the sink, clutching the dishcloth to her mouth. What sort of mess would that make? How hard would you have to wallop the thing in order to penetrate the carapace? Would it shatter like an egg or simply cave in? Would the hammer just bounce straight off again and hit the bastard smack in the middle of his own stupid face? Would the hammer catch the shell slightly off centre and send it skittering across the floor like a curling stone?
There’s a couple of mistakes in the petition, so it’ll have to go back with a letter of explanation. A proper one – not one of the standard things they’re supposed to send. He likes to be as precise as possible in telling these people what they need to put right. Not supposed to do it, of course. Could be construed as ‘giving advice’. But what’s the fucking point in sending some vague ‘please attend to points marked ‘X’’ thing? It was usually obvious what these people meant to do. They just needed putting right on it. They were supposed to be public servants after all. Some of the fucking judges would even reject a petition if an apostrophe had been missed off the citation of the place of marriage. What kind of planet did these people live on, for fuck’s sake?
He opens the letter template and types in the woman’s name and address at the top. She lives on an estate he knows, not far from the court, up the hill on the outskirts of town, near the barracks. Not a ghastly neighbourhood, but a long 4x4’s drive from the organic box schemes and Sainsbury’s loyalty cards of middle-class rurbia. Someone could use these petitions, he thinks, to write a thesis on the habits and mores of different sectors of British society. Like the one he’d had from a woman named Isobel, a musician, against her husband James, a freelance designer. James, amongst other things, was accused of using ‘abusive words’ in front of the children (Emmeline and Jolyon), being drunk at a recital where Isobel was playing, embarrassing her in front of colleagues at a dinner party by his boorish behaviour, and damaging an expensive violin case by throwing it across a room during a row. Then there was the husband divorcing his wife because she’d bought a cat, knowing full well that he was allergic to them. In her defence, she claimed she needed the cat to provide her with the love and affection she no longer received from him. Then the couple in their eighties, married for over sixty years – divorcing amicably because they could no longer stand the sight of one another. Three-quarters of their lives together to get to that stage. Think of the lies that must have been told. The pretences. Putting on a show for the world, while underneath it was all cracked and flaking and tumbling in on itself – shored up, maybe, by the occasional fling, the occasional holiday apart.
Dear Mrs Vickers,
Please find enclosed your divorce petition documents, as recently submitted to the court. Unfortunately
Tom wonders, as he constantly does these days – at every conscious moment when his mind isn’t diverted onto something else – whether he’s doing precisely the same. Putting on a front. Living a lie. Preparing for a life he’d never envisaged for himself, and one that seems to be crowding in on him all the time. One from which there’s no easy way out. He knows he loves Sally. He has her photo there, on his keyring. He also knows his life is so far out of sync that he’s almost lost the capacity for rational thought…
The place of marriage needs to be written exactly as it appears on the marriage certificate (i.e. St Peter’s Church in the Parish of Westover, in the District of Childbury, in the County of
The office door opens again and half a dozen people troop in with their ‘good mornings’ – including Julie, his line manager. He leaves the letter for the time being and takes a stats sheet out of his drawer.
“Morning, Julie. Alright?”
She slips off her jacket, then stops to polish her glasses on the edge of her blouse.
“Just doing my stats now.”
“Oh, right. Thanks. Soon as you can, please.”
She takes her mug from her desk drawer, where it’s sat upside-down since she washed and dried it the evening before.
“Do you want a drink?”
“No, thanks. Just had one.”
She goes to the kitchen, makes her Lapsang Souchong, comes back – pausing briefly on the way to look at the noticeboard. A day like this and she’s got on a three-quarter length skirt – the one that swishes loudly when she walks, like it’s made out of tent material. Starched white blouse. Sensible hair. Gold-framed specs. Looks in good training for the role of grandmother she’s going to take on pretty soon. The daughter keeps ringing up. ‘Is mummy there?’ Her husband is ‘daddy’. Tom isn’t the only one to notice that she goes to lunch five minutes after the office manager does and comes back five minutes before him. Tom can tell when they’re e-mailing one another. She grins at her monitor as she types. A minute later, he – at the other end of the office – grins at his as he reads. Then it swaps ends.
Her phone rings as she gets to her desk – first of the day. She gives it six before picking up. Her voice is quiet, but he hears ‘Hello, Pat’ at the beginning and ‘Okay… take care, and we’ll see you tomorrow, hopefully’ at the end. She hangs up and is silent for a moment, sipping her tea. Tom knows what’s coming. He puts his head down over his stats sheet. He hears the swish of the skirt as she walks up. She must have curtains under there, for sure. Wonder how well-drawn she keeps them.
“Pat won’t be in today and she’s got a bankrupt coming in at nine-thirty. Will you be able to handle that please, Tom?”
No. Fuck off.
That’s alright. What fucking choice did I have?
Another hour out of the day, then. Another hour to fall behind. No saying what’s in today’s post, either.
An hour yet.
The boulder just rolled down the fucking hill again. Didn’t stop at the bottom, either. Just kept on rolling and rolling…