‘Silence’, Alex Fleetwood

Illustrations © 2010 Teresa Tunaley

 [ The criminal was a boy, © 2010 Teresa Tunaley ] Until the last day, the judge kept a vigil in the court. The judges travelled around a circuit of cities in that country, aligning their hearings with old market-days, though only one juror in a thousand could remember why. They settled for a fortnight at a time in chain hotels that would not offend the public purse. In other countries, the judges worked in their own towns, or heard their cases on their own with no jurors to remember anything at all. They could have chosen to stay judges and go home.

The criminal was a boy, frozen inside a childish game of push and shove because he’d brought a blade. The country saw itself reflected in the case, until the other news. The learned had expounded on cramped apartments, violent idols and poor diets. Reporters had grounded their parallel tribunal in every relative of one boy or the other: a man’s chaotic fatherhoods, a mother’s solace in the misunderstood rituals of her transformed city religion, an older brother’s escape through university and opportunity. They were all on trial for the son’s mistake and every son before.

On the first day, the tabloid newspapers had caricatured the lawyers and the judge. The prosecutor’s hobbies and the defence counsel’s tailoring were charming little flourishes, likewise the junior counsel for the prosecution, a fresh graduate and still a competition show-jumper. The judge and her partner were reasons for scrutiny, not entertainment. A married judge was part of the natural order but a woman judge was still a novelty. A woman judge married to another woman had multiplied both factors into something quite remarkable. Most of the nosiness had fallen on the judge: gossipy profile features, unflattering cartoons, pictures from her youth in combative student clothes, jokes about how her surname qualified her to pass judgement on a knife fight, tenuously scientific analyses of how the circumstances of her marriage might affect her power to decide.

During one cross-examination, the clerk of the court passed her a note about the king’s and the prime minister’s addresses. The judge had adjourned court, for an hour, but resumed the next day and the next. One by one, the jurors disappeared as the days grew shorter and the stars grew hard to see. The prime minister, an arts graduate reading from a script, talked about a perverse field of energy that would still the subatomic charges of the universe. The king on television talked about serving his people in their common fate. Other beliefs held it was the serpent, or the opposite of the brother of the sun, or the great piranha come to swallow the world. The case was planned to finish a week before the countdown day, at least. The judge carried on under the new emergency provisions and sent home the non-essential staff.

The crime had two penalties: a very short one or a very long one. The judge looked at the young defendant in his boxy courtroom suit. His shoulders were sagging where his body betrayed the cloth. She could only bring herself to impose the very long one, which was also going to be very short.

‘What kind of punishment is that?’ roared the father of the dead boy, that is, the boy who had died already. ‘He’ll be no different from the rest of us!’

The last sounds in the court were the father and his brothers wrestling the guards for possession of the boy. The judge raised her voice and threatened them with charges of contempt. She stayed with the guards until the boy was loaded back into the van, to see that justice—and no more than justice—would be done.

The judge was staying at the nearest hotel to court. The town had been part of her circuit ever since she became a judge, and once she had sentenced a burglar who had entered the hotel by embarrassingly disabling a combination lock. The hotel workforce never stayed long enough to show the gratitude she never sought. The clerk of the court gave up after another day and wanted her to join him turning out the lights. ‘Leave me the keys,’ the judge said. ‘There needs to be a court.’

‘You’re doing more than the king’s done,’ said the clerk.

‘But we always have,’ said the judge. For the next few days, she opened the court herself at the appointed hour. The prosecution, as the jargon went, the crown, had chosen to withdraw charges in the remaining cases, officially on the grounds that the hearings could not be finished in time. The crown themselves were going to retire to the firesides they’d bought with others’ misdeeds. They imitated the crown on the head of the king, who had taken to his forest castle straight away with his hunting dogs and his treasures and his sons.

The judge waited for new cases in the empty court. She drank the granulated coffee from the kitchenette and watched through the windows of the judges’ study. She read some manuals of law and blushed when she remembered old decisions: oh dear, I’m not sure I should have directed the jury that way after all, but nobody appealed, so did that make it just? Nobody in that case had died, not before, not after, until now. Once, she did something she had longed to do during boring summing-ups and yodelled a droning gargle from the bench. The telephones in the hotel were broken, but sometimes they still worked at the court. She used the telephones to speak to her partner, since nobody had come to requisition them.

‘Come back to our house by the lake,’ said her partner. ‘We’ll light the fire and stare into the sun, and the dogs will lie in our laps.’

‘I swore an oath to the law,’ said the judge. ‘What would it mean, if somebody came looking for it and couldn’t find it?’

‘Come away with me to the Welsh hills,’ said her partner. ‘We’ll climb to the top of the oldest rock and sing loudly enough to wake a dragon.’

‘Do you know what kind of people have gone into the hills?’ said the judge. ‘The people I see in my court. People who trick themselves they’ll see it out, with plans and ropes and guns for afterwards.’

‘Sail out with me to my mother’s sea-shore,’ said her partner. ‘We’ll bury ourselves under the sand before it’s time.’

The judge’s partner was a doctor who visited the tired and the old. ‘When your patients see you,’ said the judge, ‘have you been doing what they ask you to?’

‘I’m not supposed to tell you,’ said the doctor. ‘You’re a judge.’

‘Well, then,’ the judge said, and she mopped her eyes. ‘I’ve told you how to find the court.’

The judge was the last guest at her hotel, and the night auditor was the last worker: the others had found their way back home or made homes with each other. ‘Well,’ he said one morning before she left for court. ‘Well, very well,’ she said. She noticed a suitcase and a rucksack in front of the desk, but they were his, not hers. ‘Where are you going to go?’ she said.

‘I can’t be responsible for you any longer,’ he said. ‘I’m going to find my grandfather in the dales.’

She went with him to the homing station outside the concert hall, that city’s largest patch of open ground. The army and the churches had joined up into a mass transit network of compassion, with coaches and lorries travelling from node to node. Their passengers milled around as logisticians who stood out in camouflage worked out how to distribute them all between the minivans and private cars and armoured vehicles and take them further home. Under a red-crossed flag, inside the box office of the concert hall, a charity had assembled grown-up children whom jobs and universities had strung out across the country. They were going to wait for stragglers another day and travel together to their parents for the final stretch, at the end of their professional lives and the brief resumption of their collective ones. The priests and soldiers were receiving singletons who’d volunteered to spend their last days in service and release a married man or woman from their work.

‘That one must be yours,’ the judge said. ‘It’s going north.’

‘Couldn’t it be yours, as well?’ he said.

‘How do you know that?’ said the judge.

‘I looked it up,’ said the auditor. ‘I was wondering why you didn’t just go home.’

The journey took no boats or planes, at least, but it lasted the best part of a day, or the worst part of a day, even without travelling in convoy.

‘So won’t you go now?’ said the auditor. The judge stared through the windows of the bus, where the auditor faced travelling alone.

‘But then the town would have no judge,’ she said. ‘I never thought they’d make me one, but so they did.’

‘And has anybody come to see the judge?’ he said.

‘I can’t take that choice away from them,’ she said. ‘They don’t have many left.’

The bus driver climbed in and started to honk the horn in the rhythm of a jokey show-tune.

‘Well, if you’re sure,’ the auditor said, and climbed on to the steps. ‘Goodbye, then, Susan Carver.’

‘Good luck with your grandfather,’ she said.

‘He doesn’t have a wife, and, well, neither do I,’ said the night auditor. ‘My father has, but better if he didn’t.’

The judge went back to the hotel and tripped the combination lock. She counted out how many clothes she’d need from her own suitcase and removed enough tinned food for twice as many meals. Then she doubled the amount of tins, for hospitality. The back of the kitchens even yielded a gas stove. She went out once to find a trolley in the street and out again to trundle it all into the court.

The people in the street were doing whatever they’d never had time to do before. The judge watched a mock battle ebb up and down the street, where fighters armed themselves with fixtures torn from shops and willingly collapsed unconscious where they lay. They experimented with the sensations of each other’s bodies and consumed all the last stock from the supermarkets. The judge could judge but had no right to enforce. She dragged the courthouse’s valuables out into the street and made a stack of computers, ornaments and ceremonial equipment. There would still be people who wanted their last act to involve showing off with precious metals: she’d usually seen them in her court as well. As an afterthought, for the same reason, she left out her judicial robes. They’d suit some bravo as a costume well, and she didn’t need those to be a judge.

She looked at the bare wall behind the bench where she had taken down the gilded royal seal. This isn’t what I meant to do this week at all, she thought. You always ask for silence in the court, and then you don’t want it when you’ve got it.

She’d exerted herself all day, she decided, and she was going to have to eat. She made a simple meal based on soup and swept her glasses off the side of the sink when she turned a tap off with her left hand. The thin lenses shattered on the lino tiles. ‘Well, I’m not going to need those,’ she said out loud. ‘Anything that was worth seeing, I’ve seen, and it can’t have been worth it if I didn’t try to see it.’ She swept the shards up with a piece of tissue. ‘Now, I’ve still got the courtroom left,’ she said, ‘but I’ve already seen everything I’m going to see in there.’ She wanted to telephone her partner and say: ‘I really did break my glasses.’ Her partner would sigh and say: ‘You did, didn’t you? You knocked them off the side of the sink.’ ‘Yes, I did,’ she’d say, ‘you see, we still had time to make that come true.’

It was colder than she expected when she woke up in the court. The sky had gone white and the sun was black. She’d imagined that she might just stop, if she didn’t gradually pass out, but she hadn’t thought of freezing. She wondered whether she shouldn’t have put her robes out after all.

Two people came to the courtroom in the morning and knocked at the front door until she let them in. They were a man, built to play contact sports, and a woman, dressed properly for the cold with fleece at every seam. Both of them were wearing wedding rings. They still waited on the other side of the useless metal detector for her to ask them in. The judge’s authoritative stare had become a squint.

‘Do you need penance for a sin?’ the judge asked. ‘One of the seven old ones, or the new ones? Did you steal a life, a treasure, or a right to choose? Did you deny the name of love in the name of a country or a god? Did you raise a baby to bind you to each other? Did you profit from the poor or from children who aren’t born?’

‘No,’ the husband said. ‘We’d like a divorce.’

The judge was taken aback. ‘Do you know what day it is?’ she said.

‘Of course we know,’ said the husband. ‘Otherwise, we’d not have asked for a divorce.’

‘Divorces use family lawyers,’ the judge said. ‘I’m not that sort of judge.’

‘On the contrary,’ said the husband. ‘You’re the only sort of judge.’

‘Why would somebody want a divorce on his last day in the world?’ said the judge.

‘Two people,’ said the husband.

‘Don’t let’s talk about me,’ said the wife.

‘We want a divorce because I slept with another woman,’ said the husband.

‘Well,’ the judge said to herself, ‘why else does anyone want anything?’ She tried to arrange some order in the courtroom and hide the blankets she had piled up around the bench so she could sleep. The husband and wife sat down in the seats belonging to the barristers. The judge decided not to move them, but she fussed around and tried to find a way for them to swear the oath. The clerk had taken away the holy books. ‘If I can’t make them do that,’ she thought, ‘I might as well have gone home and spent my last few days in company.’ Finally she decided that they could affirm, and she began to listen to their case.

The husband and wife had married for a visa. He came from the far parts of the commonwealth and had entered the country on a working holiday. She just came from the far parts of the same continent, with a passport that entitled her to stay. His first visa had been coming to an end and he’d sought a way to continue in his successful job repairing imaginary computer parts. He’d discussed the problem with his compatriots who worked in bars until one of them remembered a flatmate, an administrator with a halting accent who worked for an agency that employed agricultural labourers. The judge had heard of the firm from other trials on the circuit. Its seasonal workers lived six to a room and frequently got into fights, which had led to them telling the judge about their living conditions through puffed-up lips.

The judge realised she was entitled to annul the marriage. The law said she could regard the sham as void and send the couple home, or at least send them away. She explained what an annulment meant and that they need never have come to court.

‘That might be the law,’ the wife said, ‘but it isn’t fair.’

‘Really, we came to ask for a divorce,’ said the husband. ‘Divorce is someone’s fault.’

Before and after the marriage, they explained, they had shared a flat to avoid the scrutiny of the immigration police. They had enjoyed living together, cooking for each other, taking walks at weekends. They’d introduced their groups of friends, who all embarrassed the other group with their idea of fun and their suspicions of the others. He had grown up in a neighbourhood full of people from her country, and her foibles evoked a sudden sense of home in him. They came to think the flat was too small for her crafting hobbies and his gym equipment, so rented a terraced house instead. They joked when they moved in about him carrying her over the threshold and her pretending the front bedroom was a future nursery. After some more months, long enough for them to have really had a child, he realised that he was choosing to spend time with his wife rather than pursue the life that had drawn him to travel across the world. He made contact with his old friends again and invited another woman he knew, a regular client from his work, to join their frequent nights out. Soon they had exchanged that life again for dinners, theatre visits, and overnight stays at the other woman’s flat, which was close enough to his workplace not to interfere.

‘All the time I was alone at night,’ his wife said. ‘I had used to be alone, but I was enjoying that I am not any more. Andrew made me a promise, no, not by living together, but by staying living. And then he started talking, all the time, about some kind of other woman, that she would be his wife if he would obey the law. And this is the woman that I tried to shoot,’ the wife said.

‘You tried to kill Cecilia?’ the husband said. ‘For God’s sake, Hana. Bloody hell.’ He climbed out of the barrister’s seat and ran his hands through his centre-parted hair.

‘Could you repeat that, please?’ the judge said. Perhaps the black sun made people hear odd things.

‘This is the woman that I tried to warn,’ she said. ‘Before she would become my husband’s wife instead.’

The judge tugged at her fringe. She had never presided without a judge’s wig before. She wondered whether she would always have been pulling at her hair if she had done the other trials with a bare head.

‘I bought a gun from the owner of my firm,’ said the wife. ‘It was a starting pistol, for the races, and it cost me one thousand. The armourer had drilled out the barrel to fire some real bullets. It felt like a bar of the heaviest metal in the world. The black paint was coming off, because they have to paint the pistols orange at the factory. I thought it would be cold but it took the warmth out of my hands and then it felt warm.’

‘Did you hold it in your hand?’ said the judge.

‘Yes, yes, I held in my hand.’

‘I mean,’ said the judge, ‘did you wear gloves, or was it in your hand, like this?’ The judge tapped her fingers on to her other palm.

‘Yes, I held it in my hand, like this, and then I saw I had it on my skin, and so I realised I will have to do this thing.’

‘What happened next?’ said the judge. When she had been a lawyer, she had been trained to ask that if a witness ever left her stark dumbfounded.

Hana looked at Andrew. ‘Then I decided when am I going to do that. I put on your thickest winter coat and a woollen hat and zipped the pistol into a coat pocket, inside. It was pulling my whole rib cage down as I am walking. This woman lives on the corner of an alleyway.’

‘I know where she lives,’ said Andrew. He was sitting by his wife in the same row of fold-down seats.

‘Andrew, I know, the judge still does not know. I was waiting in the corner of that alleyway as she is coming home. She was talking on her phone and she was laughing. I thought she was laughing on the phone to you about your wife, just because it was a woman from my country. Your friends have joke that you have mail order bride. I had my hand in the pocket, ready to take out, and she is still laughing. When you walk up to that corner, you can’t see. She was in front of her doorway, getting out her keys. Then she was doing something with the bin. I could see her back but I want to find her knee, you know, to warn.’

‘You were going to shoot her in the back?’ the husband said.

‘I did not shoot her anywhere,’ the wife said. ‘Her bag was so loose it hung down to her knees. I held my breath and then she went inside, but the handle had my fingers on, so I threw in the river.’

‘It’s called a grip,’ the husband said. ‘It’s called a bloody grip.’

‘And this is why I came to see the judge,’ the wife said. ‘This is what you make of me, so this is why I ask for a divorce.’

‘Why did you do that?’ the judge said. ‘Why did you think it was all right?’

‘No, I did not think it was all right,’ the wife said. ‘Where do you think I come from?’ She scratched both her eyebrows at the same time. ‘I was scared,’ she said. ‘I wanted her also to be scared.’

‘Why didn’t you leave him?’ said the judge. ‘Why haven’t you left him? You, and why don’t you leave her?’

‘Because there isn’t time,’ the husband said, ‘and I’m on the wrong side of the world.’ He reached into his own pocket and flicked his wrist. He held the edge of a multi-tool against his wife’s neck. Justice meant nothing but speed now, or nothing but pain.

Negotiate, the judge thought, find a way in. I think that’s the way in. ‘When did you do it, Hana?’ said the judge.

This was no time for reason, said the expression on Hana’s face. She hitched up her knee and jabbed her husband in the groin. He dropped the knife and his hands flew down as if they could absorb the pain. The judge reached down for the tool. It was part of an electrician’s kit, with a wire-cutter head, four blades and at least two screwdrivers that she could stick him with. The husband stared at her with his nostrils flaring in and out.

‘Are you going to hurt a judge?’ she said. No, she thought, this isn’t any time for reason at all. She ran into the judges’ study and locked the door instead. Andrew and Hana could be doing anything, she thought, now that I can’t see. She dropped the penknife through the window, to the ground. She avoided peering down to see who might have picked it up or what they might have chosen to do with it.

The husband and wife were still there, back on opposite sides of the court. The judge climbed up to the bench again.

‘When did you do it, Hana?’ said the judge.

‘I did it last week,’ Hana said.

This time last week?’ Damn!, the judge thought, can’t ask witnesses that sort of leading question. Oh, well, nobody’s present to object.

‘Yes, I did, this time last week.’ Hana looked down at her feet. ‘I took the idea it did not matter, because everything is going to happen anyway. I bought the gun from my boss because he used, too much, and then last week he said he would not use it after all, what a waste eight hundred for a gun, he could have gone with his own wife on holiday. I said, I know somebody who will use it, and everything will fall apart in few days’ time, money is not worth. I said, if it is still worth, please use it to send the workers home.’

‘You did all this last week?’ Andrew said.

‘Why was Cecilia laughing?’ said the judge.

‘Why was she what?’ said Hana.

‘It was the day we all found out we were going to die at the same time. Why on earth was Cecilia laughing?’

‘Because that’s Cecilia,’ said Andrew. ‘That was what she was. She’d be laughing now, if I know Ceci. Why do you think we were in bloody love?’

I’ve stayed away from home for this, the judge thought, I’ve got to get it right. She slapped her palms down on the bench. ‘Hana and Andrew,’ she said. No, that was the wrong tone; it was going to sound like a wedding if she carried on. ‘Possession of an offensive weapon is a crime incurring a maximum sentence of four years in custody,’ she said. ‘To carry a weapon with intent to kill is sufficient to constitute attempted murder. Without proof of intent to kill, the prosecution should enter a charge of attempted grievous bodily harm. Both offences carry a maximum sentence of life.’ She turned to Andrew. ‘Adultery,’ she said, ‘has not been a crime in this country since the seventeenth century. A foreign citizen who knowingly enters into a sham marriage is liable to deportation.’

The husband and wife waited for a sentence. None of the penalties translated into the silent world with the black sun. He was wondering, and she was wondering, and the judge was wondering, what implements the court had for inflicting pain now that time meant reprieve not punishment. She would have to do it all herself, unless the other partner helped.

The judge gazed at both of them. ‘I forgive you,’ she said. They showed no signs of leaving, so she said, ‘Go free from this court.’

‘Actually,’ said Andrew, ‘I think we’d rather stay.’

‘I mean,’ said Hana, ‘we won’t have time now to go somewhere else, now that we came to do this.’

The judge climbed down from the bench. It was silly, really, to keep on sitting there. ‘I think I can probably make you something to eat,’ she said, ‘but I’m not sure what time it’s going to happen. If it’s late, I mean, there might not be enough.’

Inside the kitchen, she leant against the wall and breathed out the law, and duty, and vengeance. She inspected the remaining tins with thoughts of flavour. While she was cleaning the saucepan from the last time, she heard dogs growling in the courtroom. She put down the brush for washing up and picked up the sharpest thing there was, a kitchen fork that was going to be far too small. Oh, please, not by dogs, she thought. Couldn’t anyone have thought what would happen to their dogs, or what their dogs would make happen to other people? Then she thought she understood their bark. She took cautious steps back into the court, and her partner was standing by the witness-box, with both their dogs on leads.

‘Oh, Susie, Susie,’ her partner said. The dogs jumped up around the judge and sniffed the scent of cheap tinned food.

‘You even brought the dogs with you,’ she said.

‘What happened to your glasses?’ her partner said. ‘But I did bring the dogs.’

‘How did you come here?’ said the judge.

‘I drove,’ said her partner. ‘I left three days ago. They said the roads were only for the convoys and they said I should go home. Why do you want to go away from home?, they said. Because I’m a doctor, I said, but what about the rest who want to end their lives away from home? Eventually they let me on a bus, but they didn’t want to take the dogs. I drove the back way instead, through the country roads.’

‘That was dangerous,’ said the judge.

‘Sleeping in an unlocked court is dangerous.’

‘It’s not unlocked, I bolted the doors shut.’

‘I walked in, didn’t I?’

‘Oh, Nickie,’ the judge said, ‘thank you. Thank you.’

‘Have you been busy?’ her partner said. Hana and Andrew had used their state of grace to fall asleep, or give the semblance. Their heads were resting on each other’s shoulders as they nestled in seats which might have belonged to the defence, or to the prosecution, which way round hardly mattered, any more.

‘Not as busy as I thought I’d be,’ she said.

‘Did you really have the court open all the time?’

‘Well, I suppose.’

‘Oh, Susie.’ Her partner shook her head. ‘Anyone could have walked in, and anything could have happened.’

‘Everything’s about to, isn’t it?’ said Susan. They settled under blankets, with the forgiven couple round about them, and they let the dogs lie in their laps.

 [ Court open the whole time, © 2010 Teresa Tunaley ]

© 2010 Alex Fleetwood

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