Read an Excerpt
There was silence after Elisabeth Manser resumed her seat.
‘I don’t think that was a good idea,’ John Box said quietly. ‘Never a good idea to speak briskly in front of a jury. They want you to look at them straight in the eye, keep your temper and smile. I thought you were used to dealing with impertinent questions and insults from the press. I wasn’t sure. I had to see how you might react. Just as well we had a rehearsal. Not good, I fear. You’ll have to learn.’
‘When I think of my father’s humble origins,’ Douglas said, ‘it’s a wonder these bloody journalists treat me with the contempt usually reserved for the landed gentry. I’m not a bloody politician. And I didn’t expect cross-examination from a woman. Oh God, I hate women.’
‘Not, if I may say so, a sentiment you should repeat, in the circumstances. And it’s as well for you to appreciate the sort of questions and innuendos you will hear in the High Court. Possibly issuing from the delicate lips of a sweet young blonde, primed for the purpose of winding you up.’
Douglas looked at Elisabeth Manser, whose face he liked, but whose name he could never remember, to see if she was resenting his remarks, but she remained entirely expressionless. He rose from the straight-backed chair he had designated for himself, by mistake. It was the least comfortable in the room and he had sat in it for the rehearsal in deference to the guests, John Box, Queen’s Counsel, and the woman, Elisabeth, laughingly referred to as his junior, as if either of them were other than sexless, agelesslawyers, seated in a rough semi-circle round the fireplace, with the empty chair at the outer edge. Even in the absence of Elisabeth, the chair looked angry. Douglas noticed that the seat was covered in fine hair, left by the cat, and he smiled with a brief satisfaction at the thought of what that might have done to the woman’s black trousers. The chair occupied by Mr Box was far more commodious, wasted on such a skinny runt. A disgusting little prick, actually, far too tall, sitting so still, as if he was never tempted to move, fart, eat too much, laugh too loud, take his clothes off in a hurry and yell. From his own side of the room, Douglas wanted to shout himself, crossed his arms over his barrel of a chest and sighed loudly instead. A man in his position, with his own experience of the law, had to remember that the older man had other ways of kicking the shit out of people. Silence was one of his weapons.
‘But I’m supposed to let you lead me,’ Douglas said. ‘Rely on your protection. I might have been a barrister once, but now, I’m the bloody client.’
‘So you will know how lonely and vulnerable a client is as soon as he takes the witness stand. Nobody can protect him then. You, of all people, should know how brutal cross-examination can be. You know how a witness can be made to writhe. And the decision about who will do it is not mine to make. It will not be someone who wishes to accentuate a picture of domestic bliss in a beautiful family house. It will be someone who wishes to undermine you as cunningly as they may. And you must not let them do it, since I shall not be able to prevent it, except through constant interruptions which will make you look ever more foolish. Hence a rehearsal, to be continued.’ He gazed down at his hands, linked on the papers in his fleshless lap. ‘And as to all other decisions on the conduct of this case, you must continue to trust me. Absolutely. As you no doubt would once have insisted that your clients did you.’
‘Is there any chance of some coffee?’ the woman asked. Elisabeth whatever her surname was managed to be deferential and demanding at the same time. She was the diplomat who knew when to interrupt. ‘I could get it . . .’ Douglas sprang to his feet. ‘Of course. Over there. In the thermos. Amy left it ready. Help yourself. I’m going for a walk.’
They were left in the room. Spring sunlight filtered through large windows; a draught swirled from the chimney and the trees in the garden swayed. In common accord, John Box and Elisabeth Manser moved without haste towards the tray containing coffee and biscuits, helped themselves and retreated to the same seats. In the distance, there was the sound of a door banging, a piercing whistle, a shouted command, another door. Looking through the windows, they could see Douglas, striding out of sight. He was the client who had convened a meeting at 8.30 in the morning and he was not a predictable person, but he was paying. John watched him, relieved by his absence since being in his presence was like sharing a room with a volcano unless his wife was there with him and by God, they would need her in court to vouch for his virtue.
‘There is something fascinating,’ John said, ‘about a man who masquerades as a hero and is really a beast. To think of it.’
‘I’d rather not think of it,’ Elisabeth said. ‘I’d rather he remained in the hinterland of minor, philanthropic celebrities, untouched. And I’d remind you, John, that that is exactly where he belongs as far as we’re concerned. In a herd of semi-extinct wildebeest, revered for being handsome, if you like that sort of thing, contentious and fleet of foot. He’s innocent, of course. All you have to know is that we have an innocent man, severely traduced by enemies.’
‘Spell that for me.’
‘What? Enemies? E — en–’
‘No, traduced. If you ever use such a word in front of a jury, we’ve had it. Too much like Latin, too archaic. If you have to spell a word to a jury or explain what it means, you’ve lost the buggers. Speaking of which . . . oh shit . . .’
‘Don’t mention shit. Oh please, don’t mention shit, please.’
They both dissolved into childish giggles. John sniggered into his handkerchief with a series of haw-haw-haw noises, like the muted braying of a donkey. He was a long and dapper man, wearing a faded but excellent suit, and it was his cadaverous face which lent him dignity. He haw-haw-hawed into a capacious piece of paper napkin which bore the legend of something or other. Pizza Express, Connex South; tissues he collected as he went around too absent-minded to equip himself with handkerchiefs. He had impressive, deep-set eyes, and his sense of humour, as Elisabeth resolutely refused to notice, was often reserved for the suffering of others. Tell him a cunning joke and he was puzzled; watch a man slip on a tiled floor and he was beside himself. His glee was always short-lived, but it made Elisabeth feel faintly guilty for her own laughter when they so rarely laughed at the same things. Affection, love, whatever she called it, was a random force, quite beyond rational judgement; chalk often adored cheese and besides, all the same, it was bloody funny.
Bloody, used in this context, was so far removed from anything to do with real blood, it did not impinge on the joke.
‘Under our existing laws on privacy, such as they are,’ John said, recovering himself and wiping half the smile off his face with the napkin, ‘these photos are entirely admissible as evidence in any court of law. They were taken from outside a man’s private property, from the safety of a tree’ — here he began to snigger again — ‘whilst looking into the garden. Oh dear. And in the others, the ones in the stable, they are stills from a security video which our plaintiff threw out with his rubbish. There is no property in abandoned goods. How can he have been so stupid? And why is it, my darling junior, that we give ourselves such licence to spy on one another?’
He was returning to an oft-repeated theme and it seemed artless to comment that without such licence to spy, he would not be in a position to earn his living and her own modest stipend would be severely diminished. He might still have owned houses and cars, but items of a different, smaller kind, and even if the licence to spy had not afforded him luxury, it would have made no difference to what he did, since he was addicted to it.
A parasite in the gut, his wife had remarked in her dry, committee voice and the memory of that smothered his laughter temporarily. John Box, QC, specialist in libel, would not have dared to ask his own wife to take the stand in his defence, which is what this client would be doing. He felt some sympathy for Mrs Amy Petty, which nevertheless dissolved in merriment again as he picked up the nearest photograph from the pile which scattered across the surface of the desk. The photos were slightly sticky to the touch and bearing the shameful traces of a thousand fingerprints. Everyone who had seen them had laughed.
The photo, enlarged to an obscene degree, had the blurry outlines of a badly executed video still. It was part of a series of markedly worse quality than the photos of dull-eyed dogs lying in straw or strolling with the listlessness of ill health. This photo showed a man, running across a lawn, pursuing a large, yellow dog. Both were of powerful build, oddly similar in the paleness of their colouring and halos of blond hair. In comparison to the man, the dog was a masterpiece of elegance, fluid in flight, tail held aloft like a flag of courage. The man was naked from the waist down. His torso was dressed in a garment resembling a striped pyjama top, held together over a barrel chest by a button or two, a substantially firm and large belly exposed. He had what appeared to be a stick in his hand — it could have been a whip — and his face was contorted, again in contrast to the calmer profile of the dog. Also exposed on the man was a prominent penis, caught on camera as a piece of body furniture held at about fifty degrees. There were heavy shoes on his otherwise bare feet. He looked monstrous. A view improved in the next frame in the sequence, when the angle of either the shot or the subjects had changed and he had caught the big dog, grasped it, fallen on it, the pale moons of his buttocks exposed and . . .
‘Fucked it,’ John said, sadly. ‘Oh dear. And him with such a lovely wife, too.’
The coffee was fine and strong, the cream thick and the biscuits rich and crumbling on the tongue, a good replacement for breakfast for her while filling the ever yawning gap of John’s appetite. She had a memory of another occasion, when the delectable Amy had provided them with lunch, on the basis of which Mr John Box, QC, had decided, with good reason, that she was exactly the woman to put straight her husband’s injured reputation at the now imminent libel trial. Such a sweetheart, nicely warm and flustered; the perfect spouse to swear to the contentment and normality of her husband. Even if he did keep a menagerie.
‘Of course he has no need to beat his animals,’ John said. ‘Or to attempt to fuck his dog. No need at all. Not with a wife like that.’
‘Star witness,’ Elisabeth agreed. ‘Absolutely vital. Good woman. She’ll stand by. Like good women do.’
They sipped, like decorous schoolmarms, not quite waiting for Douglas to come back, because that was not an event they could anticipate. Douglas was volatile. Neither counsel had ventured an opinion as to his sanity, even in private, but each treated him with the firm deference given to someone who was mentally unstable. Elisabeth touched John’s hand, briefly, a gesture reserved for private moments, or occasionally the train, where no one noticed.
‘I sometimes wish,’ she said, ‘that we had never volunteered for this case.’
‘Nonsense. It’s unique.’
In the distance they could hear the sound of dogs barking furiously and both shuddered imperceptibly. John gazed around the room, a familiar place through three similar meetings over the last month. It was an extraordinary house, not really designed as a house at all. It had been some rich man’s foible in the last century, when the creator of it had used this valley as a setting to build a folly, consisting at first of a large, circular room, which was where they sat now. The room, with an ornately moulded ceiling and featuring a geometric frieze and large French doors looking out over a lawn, had been designed to ape the style of a gentleman’s club, the Reform, perhaps. It had the look of a louche library, a place to be used for elaborate picnics at the far end of an estate. Then there were the additions which made it into a house, the large rectangular extension which was added to the back two generations later to provide kitchen and scullery connected by a flagged passageway, with stairs from there to bedrooms and bathrooms. The result was odd to say the least. There was no real entrance, apart from the French doors on the lawn or through the kitchen, where the extra addition of a porch did little for the symmetry at the rear. Seen from the front lawn and the willow tree, the line of the gently domed roof of the round room was broken by the addition of a chimney. The whole of the exterior, front back and sides, was painted bright, reflective white to make it seem more uniform than it was. The original room was the only magnificence, used, so history had it, as a palatial summer house for the ladies of the family, but also, it was rumoured, as a sort of hellfire drinking club for the men, for the conduct of debauchery away from the public eye. Stables had been built for their horses. Subsequent to that, by the time the place began to look from the air as if a bite had been taken out of a circular structure and a huge box stuck on the back, some family eccentric had been dumped here, again out of the public eye, to keep a menagerie of animals collected from foreign parts. The stables had then served a different purpose. Now both those pieces of its history would make it suitable for a man like Douglas Petty and his father before him. It was rather a man’s house. Women were irrelevant.
The room in which they sat was undoubtedly elegant in proportion and quite magnificent enough to attract journalistic attention, although the decor left something to be desired. The circular contours created difficulties with furniture. The fireplace was custom built. The moulded ceilings had been white once, now an antique cream, with darker corners where the residue of cigar smoke stuck, like in the ceilings of an old pub. The main feature was the stretch of curved, ceiling-height windows covering most of the outfacing wall, with the huge French doors in the centre. They brought into the room all the blinding light of a late spring morning and the view of the gracious willow tree, vibrant with fresh leaves. Saggy damson-coloured drapes were pushed to the side of the windows, trailing to the floor and obviously never disturbed. The faded cream of the walls and the semi-circle of armchairs, dwarfed by the size of the room itself, were in various states of repair.
‘What a nice day,’ Elisabeth remarked, letting the place charm her.
It would be exceedingly cold in winter, with or without the fire. The impression given was that the room was occupied by animals as much as by human beings. Visitors in dark clothing would leave covered in visible fur. The carpet was clean, but looked as if the struggle with animal presence had proved unequal. The large kitchen beyond, which Elisabeth had seen on a previous visit, was a better-kept place, where the war against the muck of the garden was waged if not won. All that effort, and the frilly cleanliness of the upstairs rooms, was probably down to the fragrant Mrs Amy Petty. What a treasure. She certainly needed domestic help in the face of a husband who entered and left like a gale-force wind, all the dogs in the stables and a mother-in-law. There was also a Petty sister, Elisabeth remembered, not yet seen, but still a point of reference as a frequent visitor. If John and she should ever live together, she thought idly, she would inherit far more hideous complications than that.