Read Armistice Online

Authors: Nick Stafford

Tags: #Historical

Armistice (4 page)

BOOK: Armistice
7.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Philomena's eyes settled on Jonathan Priest, searching for any signs that he was conscious of his performance. Any little smile, or flicker of the eyes. If Dan were in his place he would have been unable to prevent a smile to himself now—his habit, infuriating to some, after he'd done something well. Was Jonathan Priest acting? Only someone who knew him in another context would be able to tell if his current disposition: head down, angled slightly, nodding occasionally, as if running the whole thing over in his head in case he'd missed something, indicated he was acting. Acting or not, he was definitely leading, setting an example as to how the jury should conduct themselves when contemplating
the very serious question: what is the right thing to do?

In the marble-floored public areas at the entrance to the courts where members of the legal profession and others can mingle Jonathan Priest was standing alone. Philomena wondered if she should exploit this proximity and make herself known to him. She observed him reach a finger under his wig to scratch his head, screwing up his face as he did so. Something about this unguarded gesture made her decide that she should introduce herself, but after she'd moved a few steps in his direction he suddenly became agitated, for no reason she could see, and he made off, entering—she discovered on closer inspection—the men's lavatories.

Now in the public area there began a bit of a flap. Hurried footsteps clacked on the shiny floor as various officials moved swiftly hither and thither, passing between them, in hushed tones, some urgent news. Philomena edged nearer to where two such men were about to converge and successfully eavesdropped on one telling the other that the jury had already sent a message to the judge asking what the lightest sentence would be should they return a guilty verdict. All the officials seemed to know exactly the significance of this, and it seemed to please them, but later, when the court reassembled to hear the jury's verdict, Jonathan Priest didn't appear to share this pleasure.

As the stiff-collared foreman declared the accused “not guilty” the winning barrister remained in a reverie, tapping his top lip with his index finger, ignoring the grateful young veteran's
attempts to gain his attention. Philomena puzzled at Jonathan Priest's behavior toward the boy he had just so successfully defended. Able to see both without turning her head she watched the acquitted's celebration sour. His brow furrowed and the grimy-looking heel of his remaining hand beat nervously on the wood of the dock. Philomena sensed that more than anything he needed Jonathan Priest to look at him, but the barrister remained oblivious for a few more moments before he looked up and smiled at his client, who appeared more relieved now than when the jury's verdict had been delivered. Jonathan Priest got to his feet, courteously shook his youthful client's surviving hand, politely accepted his heartfelt gratitude.

Philomena accidentally caught the judge's eye and realized with a start that he was studying her. She looked away and felt immediately, automatically guilty, of course, as though if the judge pointed at her she would find whatever his accusations were, were true: “It wasn't this young man who stole those items, it was her, her up there in the gallery!” And she would admit, “Yes it was me!” and be arrested, tried, jailed.

When she glanced back at him the judge had already looked away. She saw him nod imperceptibly toward Jonathan, as if to agree, “Yes, fascinating.” Jonathan Priest looked around. Philomena could tell that the judge and he made eye contact. The judge made a tiny gesture, three swift little claps of his hands—not mocking or ironic.

Once out of the court Jonathan entered another lavatory. God, this case, he thought. How he'd had to bend it. Empty
cubicle. Anyone about? That melodramatic speech he'd made earlier was more than was required of him—what had he been thinking of when he'd admitted the guilt of his client? He'd entered a plea of not guilty, so it was up to the Crown to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt—which they had done in terms of objects unpaid for found in his client's possession. But he'd sensed that while the court knew a guilty verdict was evidentially correct, it wasn't necessarily right, so he'd made his extremely unorthodox intervention, winging it on behalf of a young man he didn't even particularly like. It wasn't because he was a fellow veteran, that much Jonathan was sure of. He didn't like veterans for their own sake. Damn right he didn't.

Jonathan shut the cubicle door, wiped the varnished wooden toilet lid with his sleeve to ensure its dryness, lowered himself to his knees, took out a phial from his waistcoat pocket, removed the stopper, laid out a fine line of cocaine and inhaled … He rubbed the residue on his gums, stayed kneeling for a few moments, forearms resting on the toilet lid, as if in prayer. He took out a pocket mirror, checked no powder was visible on his face or in his nostrils.

In one of the corridors behind the courts where the public may not go he happened across the judge traveling in the opposite direction. Oh no, the judge wanted to talk. Their cloaks settled about them as they slowed to a halt. Standing too close the judge bantered: “Guilty, wasn't he? The empty sleeve won it, of course.”

Jonathan had to make some reply; to do otherwise would
be unutterably rude, but instead of joining in with the judge's light-hearted teasing he surprised him by replying evenly: “It really is empty.”

“What?” barked the judge. In the dimly lit, windowless thoroughfare he cocked his head and after a moment's pause added: “I was complimenting you. You're in the ascendancy, Priest. People are talking about you,” expecting, as in the normal way, for a young lawyer to bow his head in humility, or to gush some thanks. But again the judge didn't get the response he expected. He received only a blank stare.

“Have I caught you at a bad time?” the judge growled, his rebuffed overture making him aggressive. “You see, it might be worth your while to appear even slightly enthusiastic that I'm at all interested in you. I'm not saying you should kiss my ass or plead to rejoin my chambers, but—”

“I'm sorry, sir,” offered Jonathan, keen to placate his very powerful superior. “I didn't mean to appear rude.” After all, the poor man didn't know what he'd done.


She had been here, to his chambers. Dan's girl. Might she return?

Jonathan desperately concentrated on the notes for his next case. “… I went in and heard the cry of a child from another room and I searched and searched but there was no child in any of the rooms that I could see or so I thought at the time, and when questioned he said that he hadn't been there all day or even ever at all before, he didn't know the victim—”

Who was this? Flick back through notes … ah yes, the police officer. He writes as he speaks:

“—and the other one she said she didn't know the accused but there was blood on the broken window pane and a neighbor said that the man had been there before, they were always at it—”

A knock at his door—not Jones' knock. Jonathan sat still, waiting. It was going to be her, wasn't it? He remained silent. The knock came again. He glanced toward the window, contemplating a dramatic escape—had a vision of himself as a silent movie comedy hero taking ridiculous, completely-out-of-proportion risks to evade minor threats. No; no need
to flee. All he had to do was talk to her. It was bound to be emotional; he was just feeling the emotion. The physical symptoms of fear and excitement are the same.

He placed his elbows on his desk, made a cathedral of his fingers, and called, “Come!”

There followed a few moments while he waited for the green baize door to open, but it did not. He dropped his hands and pretended to be reading so that he could appear unconcerned when she entered.

Having heard “Come!” Philomena wavered. Open the door, or walk away? Why was this simple act so difficult? Knock on a door, receive an instruction to enter, open the door … She knew he wasn't going to have two heads, that he was a professional man, not too much older than her; what was this ominous feeling? It was as if she had one toe on the end of a bridge; she wanted to get to the other side but she couldn't quite put her foot down and step forward. Likewise in the real world, she could feel the round brass doorknob cold in her hand but couldn't bring herself to grip it tightly enough to turn it.

She jerked a little away from the door then immediately jerked back toward it. Both movements felt as if commanded by some remote part of her—she wasn't conscious of instigating either. “Philomena,” she said her own name under her breath, and waited a few moments until she felt more whole. She deliberately let go of the doorknob, wiped her hand on her skirt—though her hand wasn't sweaty, shifted her stance slightly, and the brass knob turned easily. Still irrationally afraid
of what might happen next but making herself go on, she entered the room, took a further three steps onto the heavy, dark green carpet, so that she stood just inside the threshold, the door ajar behind her. Jonathan Priest put down some papers and rose from his seat. He felt a force, a charge enter the room. Philomena. Striking, as he'd expected. More striking than in her photograph.

Unsettled, he thought to close the door and set off from behind his desk to do so. As he moved, so did she. She stepped more fully into the room and revolved, keeping her front toward him. An image of opposing magnets flashed through his mind; like poles repel. When he reached the door they were angled slightly away from each other like two animals meeting for the first time, watching each other with their sideways eye. He shut the door and turned to her. She took half a step backward, which prompted him to think that they
been too close and that he should acknowledge this by also taking a step backward.

For a few moments the muffling effects of the carpet, the heavy purple velvet curtains, the baize, the shelves full of books, combined to render the room silent apart from, it seemed to Philomena, her own and Jonathan Priest's lifesounds: the beatings of their hearts, the passage of blood in their veins, the sighs of slightly quickened respiration.

Jonathan was taken by her eyes, which were green, and bright when they caught the light so you felt that they were backlit. They reminded him of the luminous eyes of men in the war, who were intent on surviving some intense period
of activity, and of people he encountered through the law, ordinary citizens caught in some great upheaval.

“I'm Jonathan Priest,” he said, trying to sound cheery about it.

“I know,” she replied. “It says so on your door. But another man might have been using your room. But he isn't. You're Jonathan Priest. I know.” She faltered and glanced down at the carpet. Why was she babbling and why hadn't she admitted that she recognized him because she'd watched him in court—and why had she just thought the word “admitted” as though she were embarrassed, had done something underhand? She knew that he was who he said he was because she'd watched him in court, but the moment she could tell him that had passed. Nerves: tell them what to do, not the other way around. She looked up at him and took a deliberate step forward. “I'm Philomena Bligh; Daniel Case's fiancée.” And she proffered a photo of Dan pretending to smoke a stick, as if it were her calling card. Jonathan looked at it but didn't reach for it, so it remained in the air between them until Philomena took it back and tucked it in her bag without looking at it. Jonathan had recognized Dan's pose in the photograph. He'd seen him adopt it numerous times, not always with a stick, with whatever was to hand at the time: a cutlery fork, a Mills bomb, and several times nothing, just a mimed shape.

Feeling under pressure, he moved further away, saying: “Please, sit down,” moving a chair for Philomena, trying to make a fresh start, begin a new exchange that wouldn't be as disquieting.

But “No thank you,” said Philomena, staying where she was, on her feet.

“Oh,” he said.

Why wouldn't she accept the offer of a seat? He feared he knew why; she remained on her feet the better to confront him—she knew his secret. But how could she know that about him? Get a grip. Nobody knew that about him.

don't know that about me, or, if you do, are unable to communicate, which is not quite the same; it leaves me with my fear, the knowledge that it's possible that you know

He let go of the chair and there was a catch in his throat that he had to cough out before he could say: “How are you?”

Having done the wrong thing in offering a seat—or rather having done the right thing but having had it treated as if it were the wrong thing, it seemed now that using one of the basic everyday introductory phrases in the English tongue—how are you?—was the wrong thing to say, because her only visible response to it was to shift her weight.

Philomena wasn't reacting to Jonathan's question; she wasn't thinking to herself that it was obvious how she was: “I'm grieving of course, you fool.” She didn't understand her own behavior but knew it was stimulated by the strange premonition she was having—a furthering of the ominous feeling outside the door—that everything she had known, or held, was falling away.

“I'm sorry, that sounds silly—how are you?” ran on Jonathan, “I mean, are you visiting London—I'm sorry, that's a stupid thing to ask, too; what does it matter whether you are visiting?”

As he spoke more she could hear his—to her—reassuring Yorkshire accent emerge from underneath his “working” voice. She hadn't meant to make him uncomfortable, but found it endearing that he clearly was.

“I am visiting,” she said surprisingly brightly, making it sound as if he was quite clever to have worked this out.

And that seemed to settle him a little. They were now looking directly square on at each other for the first time. His eyes were brown, and Philomena thought that a strange thing about them was that their edges didn't seem fixed. Under her gaze he reddened, and fidgeted, and seemed almost about to take a step toward her, which he checked.

BOOK: Armistice
7.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Madrigal for Charlie Muffin by Brian Freemantle
Gypsy Boy by Mikey Walsh
Banging the Superhero by Rebecca Royce
Viking Legend by Griff Hosker
The Devil Stood Up by Christine Dougherty
Court Out by Elle Wynne
Ashlyn Chronicles 1: 2287 A.D. by Glenn van Dyke, Renee van Dyke
Comeback by Catherine Gayle
The Lost Ones by Ace Atkins