I’m waiting for Leon inside the cavernous interior of the Penderel’s Oak on High Holborn. Despite the time, the pub is pretty busy. A mixture of suits and workmen cluster in the numerous booths and, whilst they segregate along lines of attire, both groups tuck into similar fare: full English breakfasts and pre-work pints. Today is round one of Leon’s application for a defined contact order to see Damian, his son. After helping him fill out the required paperwork, I’ve agreed to be his McKenzie Friend for today’s scheduled hearing.
I’ve bagged a small table by the window and spy him outside way before he makes his entrance. He’s wearing Paul’s old pinstripe and Mostafa’s cast-off wingbacks meaning that he looks a bit shabby but about a million times smarter than usual. I don’t make him suffer as he walks in and looks around for me. Raising my hand, I shout his name and wave as he scowls over. Relief slashes his face, but it’s gone in an instant. The prospect of an impending court hearing would do that to you too.
He folds his long legs clumsily under the small table, knocking it off balance and spilling my drink over documents. I curse inwardly but make a real effort not to show my annoyance. He doesn’t need it. Not today.
“Shit, sorry. Was that important?” he asks. It is, but there’s nothing to be gained from telling him that so I give him my best gallic shrug and press on.
“Right. The bundle. You got your copy of the bundle on you mate?” Leon looks at me blankly so I rephrase: “The folder. You know, the one with all the paperwork in it. This thing.” I lift up my binder. Coffee drips off it and onto my suit trousers. I lower it quickly, swear inwardly again, smile.
“What? Was I supposed to bring that?” Leon asks, his voice starting to rise.
Oh Jesus, I think. Yes! Yes, of course you were supposed to bring that, you…
“No matter,” I say, nice as pie. “The court should have the copies we mailed through last week and anyway, worst comes to the worst, we’ve still got my copy.” I wink reassuringly as I lift one of the pages in front of me. The page, laden with latte, promptly tears in half. Leon’s eyes widen as his hand clenches into a fist. Cheque, please.
The Principal Registry of the Family Division is directly opposite the Penderel’s Oak. A slab of light concrete, mighty in its ugliness, we smoke a cigarette in its shadow. A queue is
already building: smart suited barristers with trundles of bundles caw and squawk at each other, starting the ruffling of feathers gently in preparation for the flurry of flapping in the eyrie of courtrooms above. Their clients stand close by, men and women, young and not so young, rich and poor: carrion all. Leon gives a sharp intake of breath and hisses poison.
I follow his gaze and see her. Perched on heels, wearing a charcoal grey pinstripe trouser suit, Leon’s ex is the only client who seems to be in direct conversation with her brief. They look so easy and natural that I would have assumed her predator rather than prey; she certainly looks the part. Her legal eagle is tall, gaunt and bald. A thin, bloodless smile twitches across his beak but doesn’t manage the craggy flight up his face to the narrowed eyes, shielded by steel rimmed spectacles. Leon’s ex screeches with laughter, her long taloned claws reaching out to touch him briefly on the arm before letting them trail to her side and then, finally, up to her mouth. Her eyes are locked on his but I would swear that she is surveying us through her peripheral vision.
“Oh Christ she’s tooled up, man, she’s got a brief with her!” Leon is still hissing but the increasing panic causes his pitch to rise.
“Relax, it doesn’t matter, it’s to be expected.” I say but I can hear the tremor in my voice. It does matter. I didn’t expect this. Why did I think I could do this? Leon’s crazy. Not crazy, hot-headed. Maybe crazy? Either way, he’s toast. I breathe deeply, calm myself down, try and edit my last thought: we’re toast. The doors open and the queue begins to migrate in. We look at each other. His face is ashen and drawn, his eyes, of course, wild.
“I really need a piss.” he says.
“Come on.” I reply but I’m thinking: Me too…
Leon and I are pretty much the last ones in the line meaning that we’re pretty much the last ones through the door. A full on, airport style x-ray bag check and walk through metal detector awaits us on the other side. Leon’s quiet gasp causes my heart to flutter: surely he can’t have… what? What can’t Leon have? I look at him and wonder just what he is capable of having or not having and come up blank. His hands shake as he empties his pockets into the tray but there’s nothing there to worry about: just keys, an old wallet, his mobile. He passes through the metal detector undetected and I feel slightly ashamed of myself. I bleep on the way through and the guard confiscates the knife and fork I’d been going to eat my packed lunch with, snugly rolled into a paper serviette inside my suit jacket pocket.
“You had me worried there for a minute, mate.” I say as we head up in the lift, just the two of us owing to my delay at security. “Going through the metal detector,” I add. “I thought you looked a bit worried.”
“Oh, yeah!” Leon smiles at me. He moves closer, pulls something from his pocket. I hear a click and a pop. “Forgot I had this on me didn’t I?”
I look down at the small Tupperware container which looks just like the one I’ve brought my lunch in only much smaller. He’s popped the vacuum seal on it and unclipped the top for me to see the contents. It’s full of hash.
“Oh Jesus,” I manage just as the lift doors slide open and we arrive in the bustling communal waiting room.
The morning nose dives from here. We check in with the clerk who looks clueless when I mention the bundles sent through the post but smiles radiantly and says she’s “sure they’re somewhere”. We vainly look for one of the private waiting rooms but, being the last in line, there’s no chance. Leon thinks he’s found one when he sees an open door but triumph quickly sours when he marches in on his ex and her brief nestling in for a final summit meeting. He returns looking shaken. So we settle ourselves into the main waiting room with the rest of the frazzled dads. I find a couple of seats next to the drinks machine, facing the entrance to courtroom 2, and I do my best to give Leon some last-minute prep.
“Right then, I can’t speak once we’re in there but I can type notes on the laptop for you, got it?”
“Got it. Make ’em big.”
“Will do. And Comic Sans. There are two ways to address the magistrate, what are they?”
“Sir or your honour?”
“Sir or your worship. What if it’s a woman?”
“Then I’m dead.”
I look at him, gauge he’s joking. Probably.
“Very funny. Odds are it will be, so what are you going to call her?”
He lowers his head into his hands, sighs, slowly looks up.
“Good guess, but not right. Ma’am. Now let’s go through that again.”
Leon dutifully trots through the names and gets them all right this time.
“Okay, good,” I say. “Her brief will try and get you to engage with him directly so he can push your buttons, don’t let him, stay looking at the magistrate and address everything you say to her and don’t interrupt the brief, no matter what he says, okay?”
Leon nods his head and I’m feeling better about this. The box of hash flashes into my head and I lean into him.
“You’re sure you’ve told me everything, mate? No nasty surprises waiting for us in there?”
“What?” he tries, affronted. “Course, what else could there be?” his eyes drift up to the left.
We sit back and stretch, take a look around. Every so often two groups emerge from one of the courtrooms, the first peacock sure and strutting, the second feathers ruffled and winged. A tannoy directs the next flock through but the numbers in the waiting room stay fairly constant as new faces drift in.
I take a walk around and manage to collar the clerk and ask her if she’s managed to locate the errant bundles.
“Oh yes!” she smiles. “They were couriered across to Wells Street this morning. We’re in the process of transferring all the non-criminal family cases over there, you see.”
“But our case is here in Holborn today, right?” I reply. Her smile drops a notch.
“Yes sir, that’s correct.” she says.
“So .. we need them couriered back here today, yes?” I say. There’s no smile now as she responds.
“We’ll see what we can do, sir. Don’t you have a copy with you?”
I think about the sorry, solitary, caffeine sodden bundle, smile weakly and walk away as the tannoy asks for Andre Horton-Da Silva to make his way to Court Room 2.
Leon isn’t there when I get back to our spot by the drinks machine. I decide to buy a coke and crack my lunch open early but the dispenser swallows my only pound coin. I’m about to start banging on the side when the coin return button doesn’t work but quickly decide this isn’t the right time or place. I look around for someone who might be able to help but there’s just the same court clerk beaming away. I sigh, sit back down and pop open my lunch. The remains of last night’s stir fry stare back at me, cold, but surprisingly aromatic. I reach into my suit jacket pocket and am briefly surprised to find nothing there, but then my earlier mugging at the metal detector returns and I finally swear, albeit under my breath.
The lift door pings open and silence deadens the room in a sudden wave. I turn to look and freeze at the sight. A stocky figure dressed in orange fatigues stands in the lift doorway. His hands are not just cuffed but heavily chained and seem to be connected to another thick chain, tied around his waist. Two guards flank him, each gripping one of his heavily muscled forearms and begin ushering him in my direction, towards the recently vacated courtroom 2.
As he draws closer I start to see the detail in the tattoos which sleeve his lower arms and crawl out of his shirt, up his neck and tip toe across his face. Unreadable passages in gothic script merge with monochrome images and patterns, most indiscernible but all part of the same tapestry, its complexity unfathomable. A necklace of knives point upwards from high around his neck and the only message I can read is etched on each cheek where on his left it reads “Already” and on the right “A Legend”. The trio move silently to within three feet of me and one of the guards, a woman who could be any age between thirty-five and sixty, her close cropped hair strung with grey, looks down at me, her mouth a thin pale line. I see Leon enter the room from the toilets just in front of them and he immediately stops as he takes in the scene. I’m pleased to notice that he seems as shocked as everyone else but then his head tilts to one side as he makes eye contact with the prisoner and he nods slowly and seriously at him.
“Andre,” he says.
“Leon,” the prisoner nods back. The moment catches and holds as something passes between them. Then the guards continue ushering Andre Horton-Da Silva through, past Leon and into courtroom 2, where heaven only knows what kind of family hearing is about to take place. I stare at Leon and think again how little I really know about him. I open my mouth to ask him…what, exactly? But it’s too late, time has run out. The tannoy sounds again and this time it’s our turn. Courtroom 4 awaits.
Courtroom 4 is out the waiting room and up a winding staircase. The highest of all the courtrooms, an eagle’s nest or a vulture’s perch, let the outcome decide. We make the landing just as the now familiar sound of the lift pings again. For one crazy moment I expect to see the boiler suited convict with his jail jewelry and prison guard entourage but of course it’s not. Leon’s ex and her barrister stare out implacably as the doors slide open. My heart jumps and I hear Leon hiss and I grab his elbow to begin pulling him in when I hear the clack of heels coming up the stairs.
“Excuse me!” calls the clerk. “Excuse me! You wanted your bundles couriered from Wells Street?”
“Yes?” I say, hope daring to rise.
“I managed to speak to the clerk there. They should be here by three.”
My heart sinks. I look at Leon, look at the door to courtroom 4.
The room seems to suck us in as we move forward.
The courtroom is more modern than I’m expecting it to be. Brightly lit and thoroughly bland, the three magistrates sit in a line at a long, elevated desk at the far end. Curling around in front of them is a longer, horseshoe shaped desk. We take the side to the magistrates’ left and Leon”s ex and her brief the one to their right. The three magistrates, solemn, aged and bespectacled, stare seriously out as though bemused at our amateur legal flight…
Leon, nervous but determined, delivers his case well enough, addressing the magistrates directly and pausing only to look at my prompts on the laptop periodically. Then the first hammer blow: the brief steps up and says that in the light of the Cafcass report he urges the bench to set a fact-finding hearing for twelve weeks’ time with no order being made prior to this, owing to the severity of the nature of the allegations contained therein aforementioned report.
Leon looks at me with blank incomprehension.
“Cafcass? What the hell is that, man?” he asks. I begin typing a reply but the chief magistrate has already swooped on Leon.
“Mr. Palmer, please remember to address your comments to the bench and not to your McKenzie Friend.”
I feel the heat coming off Leon but, credit where it’s due, he keeps it together. Sort of.
“Apologies your honour,” he begins. I wince and type “your worship” but Leon doesn’t see and carries on. “I was just wondering if you could explain what this Cafcass thing is all about, I don’t know nothing about any of that.”
The chief magistrate leans forward and pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Cafcass, Mr Palmer, is the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service. They will have contacted you by telephone prior to this hearing and amalgamated your comments into their report, a copy of which they should have sent you.”
Leon tilts his head back and looks at the bench down the barrel of his flared nostrils.
“Well, I didn’t hear nothin’ from no Cafcass, your honours, so they can’t have been almagamatin’ none o’ my comments into nothin’, now, can they?”
I type “Your Worship!” again. The chief magistrate rolls her eyes and looks at her colleague to the left.
“Not this again,” she says quietly but audibly, Leon bristles. She has a hurried conference with the bench, ruffles papers and lifts folders “Mr. Palmer,” she says, pushing the glasses up her nose again. “The court apologises if Cafcass has not contacted you in the production of its report. It seems that it was produced rather late in the day.”
“I might be able to shed some light on that matter, your worships.” The brief flaps into life, one long finger raised. “Considering my client’s concern over Mr. Palmer’s… suitability for unsupervised parental contact and the serious nature of those concerns, she became understandably worried when, last Friday, Cafcass had still not contacted her regarding their report for this hearing. I pursued the matter and a telephone interview was arranged for later that day with the report issued shortly after.” he pauses and flicks a look in our direction. “I assumed that Mr. Palmer was issued a copy at the same time. It is… unfortunate if this has not transpired.”
“Your magistrates, this ain’t right,” Leon says. I cough, nose starting to run, and type “YOUR WORSHIPS!” But Leon presses on, oblivious. “I can’t get done like this when I ain’t even seen the damn report. I gotta see my kid, man.”
“Mr. Palmer,” she begins, “Whilst I appreciate your frustration, it is difficult for us to move matters forward until the safeguarding issues contained in the report have been properly investigated.”
“And how long is that gonna take, madam?”
The screen is starting to blur as I type: “YOUR WORSHIP!!!” and cough again.
Leon doesn’t notice: “I bet you be hurryin’ shit up if you wasn’t seein’ your kid, now wouldn’t you?”
“Mr. Palmer, I must ask you to moderate…”
“This whole trial’s a load o’ bullshit…”
The words are swimming before me now but I get out: “STOP TALKING! YOUR WORSHIPS!!” cough, cough.
“…your language; Mr Palmer…”
“…an’ that lizard’s got me sewn up with a whole bunch o’ lies…”
“…an’ you trio a witches gonna damn well burn me at the stake over…”
Blindly touch typing: “SHUT UP!” cough, cough, sniff, sniff.
“…a load o’ goddam hearsay!”
There’s a moment’s stunned silence in the room. Exasperated, I get out: “FFS!!!”
And only then does Leon finally look down at what I have typed. He stares at it for what seems like a long time before looking up at me and then, just like magic, the mist clears. I meet his eyes and see a calmness there but something else, it’s the same way that the Andre Horton-Da Silva looked at him in the waiting room: the look of the samurai about to fall on his sword. He nods his head slowly as his eyes continue to meet mine but I’m just off the pace, just too slow to understand what’s happening, just too slow to stop him firing the bullets I’ve unwittingly given him. Leon turns back to the shocked bench and addresses the chief magistrate directly, his voice firm and controlled:
“For fuck’s sake, your majesty.”
“A supervised contact order? Two hours a week? What is that, man?!” We’re back in the Penderel’s Oak, nursing pints, nursing wounds. Leon is shell shocked by the ordeal of the hearing and so am I, to be honest. I raise my glass and drink.
“In all fairness,” I say, “It’s a lot better than I was expecting by the end of it all.” I know immediately that it’s the wrong thing to say but, hey, why change the habit of the day?
Leon’s eyes widen as he starts in.
“Oh, it’s a lot better than you was expectin’, is it? Well that’s just great news, ain’t it? Tell me one thing, will you? How’d you like to see your kid for just two hours a week? Supervised? Like you wasn’t to be trusted, or somethin’?”
I open my mouth to put him straight but close it swiftly. He’s right, of course. I start to tell him so but he’s finding his flow now.
“An’ what’s with all this Cafcass report thing? How they be springin’ that shit on me all unawares? Now tell me you don’t think that’s fair, right?” I nod my head but he doesn’t notice.
“Twelve weeks, that’s what she said, the lady ma’am or whatever she called…” I start to tell him but he waves me shut. “Never even mind what she called, it all too late for that now, ain’t it? Twelve weeks I gotta wait. Twelve weeks an’ then we have that findin’ of whatever hearing, what it called?”
“Finding of facts,” I say. “It’s a finding of facts hearing, it’s meant to…”
“…meant to stitch me up good an’ proper!” he interrupts.
“Look,” I try again. “At least you’re going to be getting some contact with Damian. I know two hours isn’t great but it’s something, right? Better than nothing?”
He looks at me levelly and asks, “An’ who’s gonna be the responsible adult supervisin’ that contact, eh? You?” I look away, feeling the accusation in his tone and the shivers beginning to cramp my midriff. Before I can even begin to mumble he has the measure of me.
“Naw, I thought not. You ain’t really so good at that whole followin’ through thing are you? Tell me, how you shapin’ up for Mostafa’s library march, you got your Liam Neeson outfit all sorted out yet?” His eyes have now reduced down to narrow shards, freezing and hostile.
A wave of indignation begins to rise but crashes in resignation before it makes my lips. Leon stays perched on his seat, watching me squirm, taking no pleasure in how he has trapped me, how effortlessly he has got my number. I finish the beer, feel it hit the back of my throat, cold, sharp and very, very bitter. It boils down to the pit of my stomach where it sits like curdled acid. It’s Wednesday and I’m starting to feel very unwell indeed.