Sing like you know the w.., p.9

Sing Like You Know the Words, page 9

 

Sing Like You Know the Words
 



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  ***

  Patricia had read about and visited the great Inns of Court in London and knew their histories. Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, the Temple; names steeped in ancient mystery. You walked through their courtyards and escaped from the traffic of common humanity, into a little village of the intellect sheltered against the more brutal world outside. You felt rather than heard a song of old learning being sung by the weathered bricks of chambers; the spirit of the place. In Patricia’s mind at least, there was timeless magic in each of these places; each door with its painted wooden board announcing the names of tenants in a handwritten style. Only to read the names was to glimpse a different world; hyphenated surnames of the educated upper classes, exotic foreign sounding names. First names that would have been out of date a hundred years ago in any other setting.

  She had pictured herself in some future time; a tenant of chambers in the Temple, meeting clients and their solicitors in her own office that would be just shabby enough to express a careless grace. She would pour tea into an old and expensive set of plain thin china, and patiently explain her subtle insights on the client’s case from behind a battered desk that had given service to generations of counsel. In the summer, if she had no lunchtime meetings, she would make her way down the neat garden and slip through the small wrought iron gate to walk along the Embankment and feel that standing on the bank of the Thames, she was in the flow of history.

  The dream had to change after she met and allowed herself to be wooed by David, who saw opportunities to make his mark in Leeds and had never even considered moving to the capital. She had resigned herself to working from provincial chambers, which provided an experience quite different from what she had imagined.

  By comparison to the Inns, the chambers in Leeds were just nondescript rooms, ill-adapted for use as modern office space. Patricia found them adequate, but not charming. Her own set was housed in a quaint old terrace in the main area, where at least there was a little square that was neat and had some growing things in the miniature park that it surrounded. As a new girl, Patricia was only entitled to an oversized cupboard in the basement dedicated for her use. From here she emerged to run errands and carry books, or make the occasional foray to the courts or the law library. Most of the time she barely spoke with the other barristers, and when she did, it was to experience the same sense of being cast adrift in a state of ignorance that she felt when she was in court.

  Nothing in her studies had prepared her for this strange new world. The academic success that she’d bought so dearly was taken for granted, and of everything else she was ignorant. It was the unwritten rules; what everybody else but her knew how to say or do, that left her confused and humiliated. No explanations were offered. She told David that it was like trying to learn a dance while only being allowed to watch a few steps at a time. In a courtroom, the only thing she could feel confident about was that every time she opened her mouth, stood up, or sat down she was making herself look ridiculous to someone.

  David only commented that the bar was a club like any other. All clubs wanted to set themselves up as exclusive and so they developed irrational and pointless rules to keep the new members off balance until they became old members who would do to new members the same as had been done to them. It’s the reason they make you survive on crumbs at first, he said. They don’t want to let in fellows who actually need to work to earn money. It lowers the tone of the club.

  -You know how it works, he told her. Make friends with the clerks. That’s the weak point in the system. A gentleman can’t concern himself with touting for work or haggling over money, so they have to hire some guy who left school with four o-levels to manage their business, and that’s who has the real power. The clerks earn more money than most of their briefs, just directing traffic and negotiating the fees.

  So now Patricia had added sucking up to the clerks to the list of menial and humiliating chores she had to perform.

  And then one day, not long after she officially qualified, the door to her cupboard squeezed open and the face of the most junior clerk presented itself in the gap.

  -Gerry Wiseman wants to see you. He said now if it’s convenient.

  The face was gone before she could reply.

  Gerald was the head of chambers, a remote figure so far as Patricia was concerned, though he was universally described as jovial. She’d seen him coming and going; portly, untidy and energetic, with straggly black hair that usually looked like it needed washing. He had an improbable reputation as a ladies’ man. The memory Patricia carried of his physical appearance was of the damp stains that appeared around the armpits of his striped shirts on warm afternoons. As for talking to him, they had barely exchanged more than a few words.

  Patricia assumed that he wanted to see her to congratulate her on finishing pupillage and being kept on. Probably this meeting was another tradition that she didn’t know anything about.

  Gerald welcomed her into his room and made a point of brewing the tea himself. He used a cracked and ugly teapot with a part of the spout missing. She supposed it had a sentimental value. Gerald selected the least battered looking from a cluster of mugs that sat on a tin tray next to an electric kettle. He offered her sugar from a half empty bag and she declined, noting that the spoon had been used earlier.

  His room was not so different to others in the set, though better appointed. The furniture was older, grander, more ragged. Patricia knew that some of the other senior barristers wanted to modernize chambers, but Gerald was against it. There was a lot of talk just now about bringing the bar up to date. One day, she supposed, they might even have female heads of chambers.

  In Gerald’s view, which he was happy to explain to colleagues of whatever seniority, it was no bad thing for the bar to give the impression of being other worldly and a little eccentric. Damn it, he would say, we are other worldly and eccentric; it’s just that most of us don’t realize it. There should be something of the mad professor about us, or the wizard, better still. People are a little afraid of wizards; they get respect.

  But as Gerald would have it, a wizard, who breaks his staff, shaves regularly, buys himself a smart business suit and sits in a modern office; well he’s no more than a man of business. May as well be a solicitor. Then his younger colleagues would shake their heads and Gerald would fall back on the consolation of sentimentalists of all periods: I suppose it will all have to change but please god not in my time.

  Gerald spent some time explaining this view of things to Patricia, in his vague elliptical way. She knew Gerald’s reputation: that his long windedness was often the bait in a trap; that in a courtroom or a conference he was suddenly incisive when he chose his time to spring, breaking out of seeming indolence to make a telling point at exactly the right moment. Just now she found his manner infuriating. He was spinning out some anecdote beyond all reasonable expectation and there seemed to be no point to it at all.

  Then he started to talk about the building, which was as time stained and indifferent to mere utility as its senior tenant could have wished. Patricia had the impression that he was repeating bits of conversation that he’d recently imparted to the other seniors. No response seemed to be required from her for the time being. Her attention started to wander as she thought about the structure of chambers; which struck her as a good analogy for the English legal system

  The building was a maze, a hotchpotch of rooms, vaguely connected by short corridors that intersected unpredictably with other corridors, and staircases that the builders seemed to have constructed at random. It was the sort of layout where in order to get across the building; you must first go up, then down and around. Ceilings and door frames were set at varying heights, so that the overall impression was not of a building at all, more a collection of separate rooms, piled on top of or alongside each other and loosely jointed in whatever way seemed convenient.

  Had it ever been a house, she wondered? As a novice in the labyrinth there were parts of the building that remaine
d mysterious to Patricia. She was not sure that she could have pointed out the tiny window of her own mostly underground cupboard from outside the building, so complete was the disorientation once you began to navigate the internal arrangements.

  The unnatural complexity of the physical location added to the sense of unreality that she felt all the time at work; the dizzying notion that she did not belong, might never belong; that she was in a play where everyone except her knew the script, and every time she opened her mouth it was to betray her ignorance. Lately any period of reflection seemed to bring her to this point and then she would become enraged with frustration that she couldn’t let anyone see. It was all pointless rituals and hollow traditions, framed as a defence against outsiders.

  She was angry with this world, and she was angry with herself for still wanting so badly to be part of it. The system was fusty and idiotic, but though she might allow that, it was not for anyone outside of the sanctum to say so, and already she felt the guilty pride of being an initiate, even as a novice.

  Now Gerald was approaching the obscure point of his monologue, such as it was. The burden of it seemed to be that wigs and gowns and rooms with a certain patina of age (or you could say dust) were what preserved society from a new barbarian age. Abruptly he changed tack.

  -And you, er, Patricia. Settling in alright? Clerks looking after you?

  -Yes, thank you. I’ve some work coming in. Only bits and pieces, but give it time, they say.

  -Indeed. And I hear that your chap, what was his name?

  -David.

  -Yes, I hear David is a lawyer too, on the junior side of the profession. I was talking to Sammy Marks the other day, from Simpson Rose, and he was saying they have high hopes of David. Sammy was at your house the other night of course; very nice he said. Anyway, I hope, if you take my meaning, that should occasion arise, David knows that he would find our set very eager to assist him.

  -I’ve told him that we offer a full service.

  -Yes. Well perhaps you could afford to be a little more fulsome in your recommendation; without becoming vulgar. But in any case, I didn’t ask to see you to talk about that, and thanks for coming at short notice by the way. Something else entirely. Tell me what you remember about the Obuswu case.

  Patricia struggled to make any connection to that name.

  -I see you don’t recall. So long ago. Well maybe that’s a good thing – new thinking for old history. The point is there’s going to be another inquiry; seven years after the event, I know. Don’t ask me how these things come about, maybe someone new comes along and reads the files, maybe they were waiting until everyone involved had died or moved on. Most likely it was hoped that everyone would forget about the whole thing, but that doesn’t seem to have happened for some reason. In any case, now it is up to you and me to discover the truth of it, eh?

  -I don’t follow you.

  -Yes, yes of course. Well I, for my part, have been asked to chair the inquiry, and there will be quite a lot of work. It needs a bright junior, so naturally I thought of you. I mean, I should say that a lot of it will be deadly dull, reading through box loads of files and interviewing witnesses, if we can find them, and if they can remember anything. It’s forensic work, not what you are used to. The main thing is that afterwards we must be able to show that we have left no stone unturned; followed every clue, so to speak. A lot of detail in short, and much of it tedious. However, all in a good cause and it is work with a certain prestige. The sort of thing that you can point to afterwards and say, I was involved in that. People will remember. Good for the profile, do you see? So I’ll put you down for coming on board?

  -I suppose so, thank you.

  -Good, that’s settled then.

  The rest of their chat was very genial, though it seemed to end quite quickly. Back in her underground hutch, Patricia mulled over the conversation. Why had she been chosen for this: was it a good thing or a bad? Of course, whichever it was, there had never been an option turning the job down.

  ***

  Patricia started to read through the case summaries. Over the days that followed she immersed herself in the case. The agreed facts were simple enough.

  There was not much to say about Mr Obuswu. He was a simple man, described as having learning difficulties. He had come to the city in the early seventies and hung around for a few months, sleeping rough wherever he could. He liked to drink and was not choosy about the quality of alcohol that came his way. One evening at the beginning of winter, he’d been taken into police custody after becoming unruly, and the next day he was found dead in his cell. The cause of death was internal injuries, but how they were suffered was not clear.

  In itself his was not such an extraordinary tale, but a combination of factors had stamped it into the public consciousness. Mr Obuswu was black of course, and even though he had no friends in the city, relations between the police and what was at that time called the immigrant community had been tense enough for the case to spark interest. The man’s death, and the apparent lack of official interest in it, confirmed what certain neighbourhoods routinely claimed; that they had good reason to suspect and fear the police. There had been demands for an independent inquiry, and some articles in the national press about the case.

  Mr Obuswu was vulnerable, without any history of aggression, and the pathology was consistent with his having been badly beaten. Trust became the issue: to many, this was a clear case of police violence, and if nothing could be done about such an obvious abuse then it was clear that no-one should not expect justice in any similar circumstance. When the official investigation made no progress, there was disappointment but not much surprise: it seemed that incidents like this would always be swept under the carpet, almost as a matter of routine. But all this had occurred seven years earlier. Were things any different now, Patricia wondered?

  There was more detail.

  From the pathologist’s report, it was clear that the body had suffered injuries consistent with an assault. “Serious and sustained” were the words he used. The statement of the arresting officer described some difficulties getting the victim into the police van, but nothing of particular significance. Of course what was described in a report, as a minor scuffle with a confused drunk might have been something quite different on the night, but how would anyone learn the truth of that now?

  The victim was not the only alcoholic derelict known to hang around in the churchyard, and some of the others could be violent, no doubt. The official view was that there had probably been a dispute about drink just before the arrest, and that had been when Mr Obuswu had suffered serious injuries, though he had not realized it at the time. He had some old bruises as well as the recent ones: maybe he’d been beaten before. In any case, later in the evening he wandered into town in search of another bottle. The police were called because he was shouting and did not seem able to walk. The report concluded that the arresting officers were just unlucky enough to pick up a man who had already been fatally injured.

  The official inquiry that eventually followed expressed mild criticism of the desk sergeant for not calling a doctor earlier. But it was a Friday night. You had to suppose there would be more than a few drunks in the cells complaining about not feeling well and probably not so many doctors eager to come out and examine them.

  Patricia knew from David that the police preferred to leave suspects in the cells till around two in the morning, either to give them time to calm down and sober up, or because of the way the shifts changed. At that time, the officers would have a look at each prisoner’s situation and conduct interviews where necessary. You got more sense out of them after a few hours in a cell, and it was just a bonus that this meant getting their lawyers out of bed in the middle of the night to attend the discussions. No one had been called out to represent Obuswu, probably because they had never intended to charge him.

  The desk sergeant in the case was retired now. His statement didn’t include anything unusual, except that Obuswu had been in
terviewed that night by a detective investigating a different case, about an hour after he was brought in. David told her that it was standard practice for officers to persuade suspects in custody to ask for other offences to be taken into consideration, even if the suspects knew nothing about those offences. It boosted clear up rates and the suspect might hope for some favours in return. Probably the detective had wanted Obuswu to confess to some petty theft that had been unsolved for too long. It wasn’t a lengthy interview. No doubt the officer had given up trying to get any sense out of the alcoholic vagrant.

  Mr Obuswu had died from internal injuries, but according to the medical evidence, it was not possible to be certain when he suffered them. What it came down to was that someone gave him a kicking and he bled to death from the inside. Patricia noted that it would be worth challenging the pathologist’s reluctance to put a time on injury relative to the time of death, and to compare his conclusions with best practice at the time. It might be worth commissioning an expert review of the report on this basis, even at this late stage.

  The desk log was maddeningly vague about the important things, and unfeasibly precise about minor details, in the way of official documents. It was recorded that various prisoners, including the victim, had been complaining at different points in the shift, and that they were attended to confirm that they were not in serious distress. The language was the same in each case. “Attended” could mean anything. You could attend someone with the toe of your boot if they were making too much noise. But the desk sergeant did not read like that sort. He’d have been middle aged already at the time, close enough to retirement, with a record as a steady type: only four more years to serve. David said that the bad custody officers were known to everyone: usually they were the younger ones, who were bored or resentful about the job.

 
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