The clerks’ room is its usual, frenetic, five o’clock worst: Stanley is holding conversations with two solicitors on different telephones, Sally is fending off questions from two members of Chambers while scanning the Daily Cause List and Robert, the junior, is optimistically trying to tie a brief with one hand while pouring a cup of coffee for the head of Chambers with the other. Sir Geoffrey Duchenne QC returned from the Court of Appeal ten minutes earlier, muttering that Lord Bloody-Justice Bloody-Birkett was to the law of marine insurance what Bambi was to quantum physics, ejected another barrister’s conference already in progress from his room and slammed the door. He can still be heard giving a post-mortem of the day’s defeat to the senior partner of the firm of solicitors that instructed him. Superimposed on all this is the clatter of the two typists generating an apparently endless stream of fee notes to go out in the last post.
Charles Holborne pokes his head into the clerks’ room and wonders if he’ll be able to make himself heard. Dark, curly-haired and described by his criminal clients as “built like a brick shithouse”, Charles is the odd man out in these chambers. Indeed, he is the odd man out in the Temple and the Criminal Bar generally. The only barrister in Chambers to have been state-educated, he got into Cambridge by virtue of a scholarship and, perhaps, the DFC earned as a wartime Spitfire pilot. Charles had what they call a “good war” and it’s been opening doors for him ever since.
He watches with a smile as Sally — pert, cheeky Sally from Romford — politely tells Mr Sebastian Campbell-Smythe, a senior barrister of fifteen years’ call, to return to his room and not to disturb her. If he causes her to miss his case in the List, he’ll not be best pleased, will he? Sally, thinks Charles, not for the first time, is ideally suited to life as a barristers’ clerk. She’s quick-witted and quick-tongued enough to keep in line twenty-six prima donna barristers all her senior in years, supposed social status and intelligence without actually crossing the line into rudeness. Stanley, the senior clerk, has high hopes of her.
She turns towards the door and sees Charles.
‘Going to Mick’s,’ he mouths, making exaggerated saucer and cup-lifting motions with his hands.
She smiles. Notwithstanding Charles’s education and carefully cultured accent, he’s an East Ender like her, and there’s something of an unspoken bond between them.
‘Don’t forget your buggery con…’ she says, as nonchalantly as if the case had been a vicar summonsed for careless driving. She reaches for the diary and runs her finger down it until she finds his initials. ‘Four-thirty.’
Charles nods. He’s already read the case papers and there’s time for a cup of tea and a bite to eat at the café on Fleet Street before his client and the solicitor arrive for the conference.
Pulling his coat around him, Charles steps out from Chancery Court into the rain. A gust of wind bows the bare branches of the plane trees towards him and threatens to dislodge his hat. He jams the hat more firmly on his head and walks swiftly across the shiny cobbles towards the sound of traffic. He still loves the sensation of dislocation he experiences every time he walks through the archway from the Dickensian Temple onto twentieth century Fleet Street. The Temple has barely changed in three hundred years, and the sense that it’s caught in a fold in time is always strongest in the winter, when mist regularly drifts in off the Thames and the gas lamps are still lit at four o’clock each afternoon by a man with what resembles a six-foot matchstick. The Benchers responsible for running the Inn are debating the installation of electric lights and Charles knows it’s only a matter of time, but he’ll miss the hiss of the gas, the fluttering flames and the shifting shadows.
He turns onto Fleet Street and walks in the direction of St Paul’s Cathedral, its dome barely visible in the murky light, past the Black Lubianka, the affectionate name of the Daily Express’s art deco headquarters, and through a small steamy door. He’s greeted by a hot exhalation of bacon fat and cigarette smoke.
“Mick’s” offers cheap meals for fourteen hours a day and is second home to both Fleet Street hacks and Temple barristers. Its all-day breakfast, a heart-stopping pyramid of steaming cholesterol for only 1s 6d, is legendary. Charles loves the feel of the place, the easy conversations and ribald jokes about cases, clients and judges. The tension of a long court day, particularly the miseries of an unexpected conviction or swingeing sentence, can here be assuaged in a fog of smoke and chip fat. It also makes a welcome change from the rarefied atmosphere of 2 Chancery Court, where most of Charles’s colleagues deal in the bills of lading, the judicial review, and the leasehold enfranchisement of civil work.
At this time of day, with courts adjourning for the night and Mick’s being on the route to and from the Old Bailey, the clientele is more barristerial than journalistic, although Charles sees and waves to Percy Farrow, a hack friend who’s covered several of his cases. Charles negotiates his way through the narrow gap between the tables towards the Formica counter and orders tea and toast. He looks for somewhere to sit, but Percy is deeply engrossed with a colleague, so Charles squeezes his way to a stool at the end of the counter, picking up a discarded Daily Mirror from an adjacent table. Then he recognises a tall man sitting two tables away from him, hunched over a cup of tea. Charles goes to the man’s table.
‘Thought it was you, Ozzie,’ says Charles, joining him.
The man starts and looks up sharply. Charles hasn’t seen Ozzie Sinclair, the tall lugubrious thief, for years. ‘I thought you were away,’ says Charles. ‘Weren’t you doing a stretch?’
‘Fuck me,’ says Ozzie, his eyes widening, making the puffy bags under them bulge like half-crescent satchels. ‘Charlie Horowitz, as I live and breathe.’
‘Charles Holborne now,’ corrects Charles. ‘For professional purposes.’
‘Oh yeah, sorry. I ’eard you was doin’ all right for yourself, Charlie.’
‘Good on yer.’ Ozzie sighs. ‘Yeah, I was away. That bastard Milford-Stevens gave me six for one measly lorry.’
Charles doesn’t share the thief’s outrage. Now in his late forties, Ozzie has been in and out of prison for offences of dishonesty since he was thirteen; with his record, six years for stealing a lorry full of condemned meat to sell to West End restaurants didn’t seem excessive to him.
‘Yes, I thought it was a bit steep,’ he says diplomatically. ‘But you’re out now. On licence, I assume?’ Ozzie nods. ‘And what brings you to this neck of the woods? You’re not in trouble already?’ Charles hitches a thumb over his shoulder towards the Temple. ‘Seeing a brief?’
Ozzie shakes his head. ‘No, nuffin’ like that. Harry Robeson’s given us some temporary work as an outdoor clerk. It helped with me parole. I’m just dropping papers off at some chambers.’
‘Harry Robeson, eh?’
There isn’t a criminal lawyer in practice who doesn’t know Harry Robeson, a villains’ solicitor with a clientele that includes most of the serious criminals in south London.
‘Interesting case?’ asks Charles. Like every barrister in the Temple, he’s always keen to know where the quality work is going.
‘Can’t tell you. All a bit ’ush-’ush.’ Ozzie drops his voice and leans forward. ‘It’s not a proper case yet, but it’s gonna be big.’
‘What do you mean “not a proper case”?’
Ozzie taps his fleshy nose conspiratorially. ‘Can’t say no more. ’Cept it’ll be a cutthroat.’
A cutthroat defence is one where the prosecution knows that one of the accused did the deed but can’t prove which, and each defendant points the finger at the other. Charles likes them; they’re usually as fun to prosecute as they are tricky to defend.
They chat for a few minutes about old faces from the East End and how the remaining bombsites are only now being redeveloped, but Charles has little to contribute. After a few minutes he knocks back the dregs of his tea, pops the last bite of margarine-saturated toast into his mouth, and pushes back from the table. ‘Best be off,’ he says. ‘Keep lucky, Ozzie.’
‘An’ you, mate.’
Returning to Chambers, Charles hears an argument in progress through the thick, centuries-old, oak door. A tall barrister in pin-striped trousers, in mid-rant at Stanley, whirls round as Charles enters.
‘There you are! Now look here, Holborne,’ Corbett says, using the formality of Charles’s surname to demonstrate his displeasure, ‘this is positively the last time. I’m going to take it up at the next Chambers’ meeting.’
Charles looks up at the man. Corbett is almost six inches taller than him, lean and fair. ‘Is there a problem, Laurence?’ asks Charles quietly, pointedly using Corbett’s first name.
‘Yes. That!’ replies Corbett, jabbing his finger in the direction of the waiting room.
‘Your con’s arrived, sir,’ explains Stanley patiently.
‘And?’ asks Charles.
‘And my fiancée has been sitting waiting for me in there with that rapist of yours!’
‘Yes?’ enquires Charles.
‘Don’t act the fool, Holborne. I know for a fact you’ve been asked by several members to keep your smutty clientele out of Chambers during normal office hours.’
‘Is my client with the instructing solicitor?’ Charles asks Stanley.
‘Yes, sir, he is sitting between Mr Cohen and his clerk. Mr Smith’s conference is waiting in there too, sir.’
‘Well,’ continues Charles, turning to Corbett and quickly stepping backwards to allow Robert to scurry past with an armful of briefs, ‘I’d have thought it unlikely that your betrothed would be ravaged in front of five witnesses, even assuming my client was interested in her, which I doubt. Irresistible though you no doubt find her, Mr Petrovicj is charged with buggering another male. He’s not, if you’ll excuse the pun, into women.’ Charles smiles.
‘That makes no difference at all, as you well know.’
‘I’d have thought it would make quite a big difference, particularly to Mr Petrovicj. However, if you’ll let me go and start my con,’ says Charles, turning his back on Corbett, ‘I can remove the evil influence from the room.’ Charles opens the door to leave, and pauses. ‘By the way, Laurence, I know you don’t do crime, but I’d’ve thought even you knew that a man’s innocent until proven guilty. Mr Petrovicj isn’t a rapist, or a bugger for that matter, till the jury says he is.’
An hour and a half later, Charles unlocks the main doors of Chambers, and directs Cohen’s clerk and the client towards Temple tube station. He returns to his room where Cohen is still packing his briefcase.
‘Thank you, Charles,’ he says. ‘That was very helpful.’
Cohen and Partners have instructed Charles loyally since his pupillage, and Charles doesn’t mind Cohen using his first name. It’s an informality that most of his colleagues wouldn’t tolerate.
‘I don’t want to hold you up,’ says Cohen, ‘but can we have a quick word about something new?’
Charles looks at his watch. He still has over an hour’s journey to get home, where things are already difficult enough with Henrietta. Another late return is not what he and his wife need. He reluctantly resumes his seat.
‘I was duty solicitor at Snow Hill police station last night. They had two men in custody for the Express Dairies robbery and murder. I didn’t get a good look, but I think one’s an old client, a chap called Derek Plumber. He’s got a string of convictions for robbery, always as a getaway driver.’
Charles’s ears prick up. ‘Did you sign them up?’ he asks. He’s too junior to have been instructed on a murder case, but if Ralph Cohen has managed to get the two men to sign legal aid forms, a very tasty brief might be coming his way.
‘No,’ replies Cohen. ‘They were about to be interviewed, and I would’ve sat in, but the officer in the case was called away and they were left in the cells. Eventually I went home but, as I was leaving, I overheard that they’re going to be produced at Bow Street tomorrow. I don’t suppose you happen to be free, do you?’
‘I’m not in court,’ replies Charles tentatively, ‘so I suppose it might be possible.’
Cohen shrugs. ‘It might be a complete waste of time,’ he says, ‘and I can’t promise you’ll be paid. But if you happened to be there and they’re not represented yet … we could chap arein.’ The solicitor smiles and winks gently.
Charles is embarrassed at not knowing the Yiddish phrase and at the same time slightly irritated at the assumption that he would. Ralph Cohen, a greying man in his early sixties, has been in practice since just after the Great War. His offices, two rooms above a laundry in the East End of London where having a Jewish surname is a positive advantage, are emblazoned across three windows with “Cohen and Partners”. Different rules apply at the Bar, the much more elitist, Establishment branch of the profession, where class and religious prejudice are endemic.
Ant-Semitism has been a daily nuisance throughout Charles’s life. He and his brother David frequently returned home with bloodied noses, missing stolen schoolbooks and once, in David’s case, without his shoes. As a result their father, Harry, took the boys to the gym where he and his brothers had boxed since they were young. There, Charles discovered a talent for violence. By fifteen he was London Schoolboy Champion; during the war he represented the RAF and, when he picked up his education again at Cambridge, he got a Blue.
From then on Charles’s size and skill meant that he was rarely physically challenged. In any event, the anti-Semitism at Cambridge was more subtle; his peers and tutors traded not in fisticuffs but in snubs and closed doors. Still, by the time he was called to the Bar in 1950, Charlie Horowitz had metamorphosed into “Charles Holborne” and no longer considered himself part of the Jewish community.
Charles never refers to his Jewish background and prefers not to be reminded by others. Nonetheless, despite the camouflage of the false surname, shortly after he finished pupillage, a drunk driving brief from Cohen and Partners landed on his desk — the first brief in his own name, not a “return” from another barrister. Its delivery prompted glances and overheard comments about a “Jewish mafia”, but that was unfair; had Charles been no good, he’d never have received another. On the other hand, if he was as good as the next man (or better) what was wrong, as old Mr Cohen used to say, with instructing a nice Jewish boy, even if he pretended he wasn’t? A man’s got to live, right?
‘Sorry?’ says Charles.
‘Chap arein; to take advantage,’ explains Cohen.
‘Oh, I see.’
Charles considers the offer. His desk is loaded with paperwork in arrears and he’s keen to have time out of court to clear some of it. He can’t really afford to waste half a day, unpaid, hanging around a Magistrate’s Court in the hope that two potential clients might be brought up without legal representation. On the other hand, it’s a murder, and Cohen has been loyal to him…
‘All right,’ he says. ‘I’ll go and see what I can do.’
‘Good man,’ says Cohen. ‘Take legal aid forms and sign them up if you get the opportunity.’
The two men shake hands and Charles shows the solicitor out.
Charles wrestles with the key in the lock of his front door, unable to get it to turn. His grip on the cloth bag containing his robes and the huge briefcase, both in his left hand, begins to slip and the set of papers clamped between his head and shoulder slides to the floor. He throws everything to the porch floor in exasperation and reaches again for the keyhole just as the door opens. A pretty blonde woman of about twenty stands on the threshold, her hair tied in a ponytail. She has some sheets over her arm, as if she’d been in the middle of making up a bed.
‘Yes?’ she asks. ‘Oh, it’s you, Charles,’ she says, opening the door to him.
Her pretence of not knowing Charles raises his ire one degree further. Fiona, the au pair, joined the household against Charles’s wishes three months previously. Her older sister had been at school with Henrietta, and Henrietta was prevailed upon to give her a temporary job while she looked around London for something more permanent. Within a fortnight of Fiona’s arrival, Henrietta had warmed to the arrangement and Charles had cooled to it. They had no children and Henrietta worked only two half-days in the village; they also had a cleaner; so why on earth, protested Charles, were they paying Fiona to sit around drinking their coffee all day? Now, however, she’s Henrietta’s best friend and her stay has become indefinite. Charles is sure that her insolence, to which Henrietta seems oblivious and which grows more offensive daily, is learned at her mistress’s shoulder.
Charles scoops up his papers and other burdens and brushes past her. ‘Where’s —’ he starts, but Fiona has closed the door and disappeared towards the rear of the house.
Charles drops his things onto the Italian tiled floor and climbs the stairs to Henrietta’s dressing room — another innovation he doesn’t like. When they moved in, to a house he thought too large and ostentatious for the two of them, it at least had the advantage of two spare bedrooms. Then Henrietta decided that she required a “dressing room”, which had metamorphosed into “her” bedroom, now with an en suite bathroom, where she sleeps half the week on account of her “bad heads” and the demands of his late-night working.
‘Oh, there you are. You’re late.’ Henrietta stands at her dressing table, trying to fasten a necklace. ‘Here, do this for me, will you?’ she says.
She’s in evening dress, her long chestnut hair piled in a complicated style on top of her head. The dress is cut very low at the back and Charles sees that she’s not wearing a bra. As she approaches Charles and hands him the necklace, he smells the perfume he bought her for Christmas with the proceeds of the indecency plea at Bedford Assizes. Almost everything they own, with the exception of gifts from her family, are the indirect proceeds of crime, and it amuses him, and irritates Henrietta, to identify their belongings by reference to the crime that paid for them. Thus, last year’s holiday was courtesy of the fraud at the Old Bailey; Henrietta’s dress, the one she is wearing, came from the armed robbery at Canterbury. Who said crime didn’t pay?
‘You smell good,’ he says.
He finishes fastening the necklace and kisses the nape of her neck. She moves away without response.
‘You, on the other hand, look dreadful,’ she comments, looking at him through the mirror of her dressing table while inserting her earrings. ‘Late con?’
‘Yes. That buggery I told you about.’
Henrietta shakes her head. ‘I bet half the Temple covets your practice, Charles.’ She disappears into the bathroom.
‘Look,’ he replies, calling after her and flopping onto her bed. ‘I’ve had a hard day. Can we save the shabbiness of my practice for the next row? We’ve the whole weekend free, if it’s important to you.’
‘I still don’t understand why you won’t move completely into civil,’ she replies from the bathroom. ‘You’d earn more and keep up with the paperwork without working every night. Daddy says you’ve the mind for it.’
‘How nice of Daddy,’ says Charles, under his breath. Then, more audibly, ‘I’ve explained this hundreds of times. Criminal work is important. Everyone’s entitled to a proper defence, especially those at the bottom of the pile who can’t afford to pay for it. You forget: I was there once.’
He stands and follows her into the bathroom. She’s straightening her stocking seams before a full-length mirror.
‘Fine words,’ she says, ‘but I’m not convinced you really believe them. I think if you really examined your motives, you’d find you just love the grubby excitement of it.’
Charles slides his arms round her from behind and cups her breasts. “‘Grubby excitement”? But you used to like a bit of rough.’
She sighs. ‘Once, maybe; not now. Take your hands away please. You’ll mark the silk.’
‘“Had a hard day, dear? Have a drink and I’ll massage your shoulders. Dinner’ll only be a few minutes”,’ says Charles with heavy irony, but he removes his hands as requested.
‘Fuck off, Charles,’ she says, walking past him out of the bathroom and beginning to search through her wardrobe. The words somehow carry added venom when spoken so beautifully, and by such a beautiful woman. Charles trails after her and sits on the bed again, watching her bare back and slim hips, hating her and wanting her. She finds what she’s looking for: a fur coat, a gift from her father for her last birthday.
‘Etta,’ he says more softly, using what had once been his pet name for her. ‘Please can we stop fighting long enough for you to tell me where we’re supposed to be going?’
She turns to him, her face a picture of scorn. ‘We aren’t going anywhere. I’m going to Peter Ripley’s do with Daddy. It’s been in the diary for weeks.’
‘Charles, for God’s sake, don’t pretend you didn’t know about it. I asked you over a month ago if you wanted to come, and you made it plain in your usual charming way that you wouldn’t — and I quote — “voluntarily spend an evening with that bunch of pompous farts”. Close quote. So I made an excuse to Daddy as usual and agreed to go with him. Mummy’s away till next week. Ring any bells?’
Charles nods. He doesn’t remember the exact words he used to decline the invitation, but he’d have to plead guilty to the gist. This particular “do” is the dinner to mark the end of Mr Justice Ripley’s last tour on the Western Circuit before retirement. All the judges and barristers practising on the circuit are invited and, of course, Charles’s father-in-law, the erstwhile head of his Chambers and now also a judge on the same circuit, will be present. In the absence of Martha, Henrietta’s mother, who is visiting her sick sister in Derbyshire, Charles and Henrietta rather unexpectedly received an invitation.
Charles often attempts to explain to Henrietta why he hates these dinners. It’s not that he doesn’t know which fork to use or how to address a waiter. It’s just that the Judges, the Benchers, their wives, the High Sheriff and so on all share a common background; they went to the same schools and the same universities; they play cricket in the same teams, attend the same balls, know the same people. Charles can “busk it”, be convivial, pretend to show interest in what, or who, they are talking about, but it’s an act. The sons of Jewish furriers from Minsk by way of Mile End just don’t mix well with the sons and grandsons of the British Empire. Charles may have cast off his Jewishness while at university but he knows he’ll never be one of them. And when he is persuaded to attend, he often returns home from the event hating everyone there and, for some reason he can’t explain, himself as well.
Henrietta has read his mind. ‘Tell me something, Charles: what made you choose a profession where you’d feel such an outsider? And why, if you wanted to do criminal work, did you accept Daddy’s invitation to join a mainly civil set of chambers? You talk about “tribes”, which you know I think is complete rubbish, but then you deliberately join those which are guaranteed to make you uncomfortable. And then you complain!’
‘You don’t understand. If you’d grown up —’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake!’ she interrupts. ‘If you mention the Jewish thing once more, I’ll puke. Your father may have grown up in Bow or wherever it was, but it’s hardly the Warsaw ghetto. And not everybody’s an anti-Semite. I’m not Jewish, remember, and I married you. The only person who’s conscious of your religion is you.’
‘You can’t possibly be serious. Do you suppose for one minute I’d have got into Chambers had you not committed the dreadful faux pas of marrying me? Half the members of Chambers can’t stand me.’
‘I doubt that, but if it’s true, it’s nothing to do with your religion. Every time you upset someone, it’s never your fault; it’s theirs because they’re anti-Semitic. It’s the perfect self-defence mechanism.’
Charles stands wearily, pulling off his tie. ‘Can we please leave this one for now, Henrietta? I’ve had a particularly difficult day.’
‘Yes, we can leave it for now, Charles, because I’m off. I believe Fiona has made something for you to eat but, if not, I suggest you walk to the pub in the village.’
She sweeps past him, checks, and returns to plant a kiss on his cheek. She’s about to move off again, but Charles grabs her forearms. He looks hard at her, shaking his head slightly, a puzzled and pained expression on his face. Henrietta looks reluctantly up into his eyes and holds his gaze for a second. Then the armour of her anger cracks; she bites her lip and looks away, no longer resisting his hold on her.
‘I don’t know, Charlie,’ she says softly, in answer to his unspoken question. ‘I wish I did.’ He pulls her gently towards him, wanting to put his arms round her, but she pushes him away and runs from the room. Charles listens to the rustle of her dress and the sound of her feet flying down the stairs, and then the slam of the front door. He doesn’t hear her crying as she drives away.