As a newbie reporter, once I had done a shorthand course, I spent a lot of time in court. It was a small Victorian building, with a door leading straight outside, and a policeman leaning up against it so that the various shoplifters, car borrowers, and people who had been caught smoking reefer-type cigarettes, couldn’t decide to leg it while they were milling about in the large cupboard that served for a waiting room.
Lots of people wandered in and out during the hearings, or lounged against the cream-painted walls and chatted to the policeman, while earnest solicitors in creased suits bobbed up and down in front of the magistrates, reading hopefully from their notes, and not making eye contact with their clients, in case they failed to get them off the hook. Occasionally a barrister would arrive from London, and we would all fall silent to watch their big city assurance dazzle the bench.
The most exciting cases, the ones that would be sent for trial at a crown court, were heard first, and then would come the seemingly endless round of dull, petty crime. It was about this time that Bill would generally arrive, after first having ‘breakfast’ in the pub next door. He was, strictly speaking, competition, as he worked for the evening paper, but if there was ever anything we didn’t know how to do, we would ring Bill. Even Max would ring Bill. He would simply say, ‘Well, I don’t know how you feel, but I’m going to do it like this…’ And then he would read out his copy, and we would faithfully write it down and hand it in to Max.
Bill had worked on a national, and was now gently snoozing out the last few years of his working life. He always wore a suit, always looked as if he had just had a fight with a dustman, always bought you a drink, taught you everything you needed to know about the laws of contempt, never made you feel like an idiot and was, in short, a total sweetheart.
This particular morning he was obviously feeling very chipper about something. He slid along the press bench to sit next to me, and took the court schedule I offered him. ‘Christ,’ he said, in his loud gravelly, Northern accent that could probably be heard in the pub next door. ‘Shoplifting? Again? I don’t see why they bother nicking her.’ He gazed at the accused, a small woman in a neat coat, as she stood up to make her plea. ‘She’ll only burst into tears again. She’s at the wrong time of life you know. She needs a bloody vodka, not a conditional discharge.’
At this, the solicitors froze, the clerk of the court looked over his specs, and silence fell, until Bill eventually settled down and looked at the magistrates. ‘Oh, go on then,’ he sighed. ‘Do your worst.’ As the presiding magistrate opened his mouth to say something, Bill turned to me and said, ‘Have you seen today’s runners and riders? Put a fiver on Morning Star in the three thirty. Can’t lose, darling,’ he boomed. ‘Can’t lose.’
There was never any suggestion that the magistrates would attempt to reprimand him. He was liked and respected too much. In the afternoons, when the inquests were held, he would generally fall asleep and no one would say anything, until his snoring got so loud that the proceedings would stop and an usher would be sent across and we would shake him gently until he woke with a snort and a gasp, and I would fill him in on what had been happening.
I missed him a lot when I moved on, and when I’d heard he’d died I suppose I wasn’t really surprised. The other day, I went past the road leading to the court, and I saw the buildings had been bulldozed. There’s now a big modern courthouse in the centre of town, with proper security, and I dare say, inside toilets. That’s obviously a good thing. But I’m not so sure Bill would appreciate it, ‘The pub’s miles away, darling…what good is that if you need a swift libation?’