Usually there is a Russian woman manning security at Magistrates Court; a warm old Russian woman with a wry smile and a grim old soldier with a clipped noggin, veiled eyes and military tattoos. The security ritual is predictable and together the two of them have the pat-down down pat, down to the patter.
The old soldier runs his tough old hands over you, signet ring glinting as the scanner covers the contours of your body, beeping banally at your belt buckle; the wry Russian lady takes your camera as they are not allowed in court, hands you a receipt and puts it somewhere within easy reach.
She knows how it works and she knows how you work: You want a camera close to hand, so when some outstandingly sick individual is up in front of a grimacing bench of magistrates, you can scarper down the stairs, claim your camera from her quickly and nip outside to stick it in the sicko’s face when he emerges (face in crosshairs: click, whir, flurry of expletives; back to work).
Her Majesty’s Court and Her Majesty’s Press, working in cosmic harmony to ensure justice is not just being done, it is seen to be being done; it is a beautiful thing. And the Russian lady on the minimum wage is the best thing about it, with her improbable imperturbability and her thickly accented conversation, rich with succinct observations on everything from Mervyn King’s decision to continue with quantitative easing to the state of the Greek health care system.
(Once, doing the routine bag check, she pulled a crumpled work by Austrian physicist Fritjof Capra out of my satchel; glanced at the spine swiftly and turned it in her hands: “Ah, Capra!” She exclaimed in her thick accent. “I heard him speak a few years ago at a conference on complexity theory!” The woman is patting down convicts absent-mindedly and popping out every time there is a lull in the ugly traffic for a roll-up and to contemplate quarks and quantum mechanics).
But today security are not feeling philosophically minded, I am being greeted, for want of a better word, by a fat woman with a mullet and my day is about to take a turn for the worse. Miss Congeniality manning the front desk is apparently not in the mood for repartee of any stripe, not even the untaxing and chipper ‘morning’ I offer her with a smile and my press card.
She scowls at me, scowls bitterly at my wondering if she could put my camera somewhere within reach, scowls ferociously at my stubble-stuttered chin and superciliously civil greeting prattled down in her face. She decides immediately I am another shithead here to make her life misery and decides to put the boot in first. Stupidly, I am about to make it easy for her. Because attached to the keyring I drop with a rattle into the grey plastic security tray — along with a pocket of loose change, a few bits of fluff and my wallet — is a knife.
It is a small knife, all things considered. (It is 3 ½ centimetres I am about to learn), but it is on the Queen’s property and the woman with the mullet, who is there to protect her Majesty’s drab court rooms, duty solicitors, drug dealing dickheads and herself from prats like me, is about to take serious umbrage.
The blade in question is a dinky, black plastic folding one that I bought at a fishing tackle shop in Stourbridge for £2.50 and last used for cutting little sticks in the woods for my kids to toast marshmallows on. It still has bits of pink gelatine stuck to the blade. As offensive weapons go, it’s barely ill-mannered.
(Once, a year ago and typically absent-mindedly I left it attached to my keyring as I have done now and the scowling old soldier took a quick look at it and said: “I suggest you take that off; go and put it somewhere outside, then come back again or I’ll have to have it…” I did so, apologetically, but not sycophantically so, because I guessed the worst that could happen is that he would confiscate it and chuck it in the bin with a dismissive rattle).
Today though, mullet-woman leaps on it like it’s her winning lottery ticket; like I have secreted a sawn-off shotgun inside my suit jacket and tried to smuggle it past her. I have realised the mistake as soon as I toss my keys into the basket and am telling her friendlily: “Sorry, I forgot to take that off” and pointing it out to her as I empty my other pockets: She’s not listening. She has grabbed for it with a malevolent fist and is opening it triumphantly, so it locks into place somewhere between our noses with a menacing click.
She eyeballs me like she’s pulled a bomb from my bag: “Sit down over there Sir!” She barks with an serrated edge to her voice that begs for me to disobey. It would be callow to dissent so I sit down on a chair, fold my legs and watch her, wondering where this is going as she fumbles urgently for paperwork. It’s a smoking gun and she wants my fingerprints on it. Something about my demeanour, my breezy assumption that she will turn a blind eye to my apparently mammoth transgression has put her hackles up and she wants to fuck me over good and proper. A shit storm is brewing and I’m about to get flushed.
I’m still in a fool’s paradise. “Can I get to work please?” I ask politely 10 minutes later, standing up from the chair and gesturing towards Court room 1. She takes a deep breath and swells with rancour as her little piggy eyes ooze fury and the desire to exercise every puny portion of power she can seeps from every pore.
“I ASKED YOU TO REMAIN SEATED SIR!” She bellows back at me, her mullet frothing frantically at the back of her meaty neck. I’m beginning to get pissed off. There is a paedophile sitting in the waiting room upstairs; facing court for child abuse and bestiality. There are wife-beaters, drunken thugs, heroin junkies up for their 200th shoplifting offence and more. There is a conveyor belt of criminals churning through her metal detector for a quick fag before their hearing and they are getting narry a glimpse from this fat Hitler-with-a-mullet.
“Is this strictly necessary?” I ask. “I’ve apologised. It was an honest mistake. It’s not like I tried to hide it. I put it in your hands myself. So could you just put it in the bin as I really need to get to work, or could you at least be so good as to tell me what I am waiting here for?”
“Necessary? Strictly NECESSARY? That’s an offensive weapon and you are on Queen’s property. You’re sitting there because you are UNDER ARREST and the reason you are waiting is because YOU ARE WAITING FOR THE POLICE!”
Sometimes, I suppose, there is no point fighting this sort of thing. You’re off your surfboard and being sucked under; try to scream or thrash about and you’ll simply choke on bile and brine. All you can do is hold your breath, wait for the natural motion of things to bring you back to the surface again and pray there is not another wave about to crash down on your head. I take a deep breath, raise an eyebrow with as much quiet disgust as I can muster, slip a book from my bag and sit back down to await the arrival of the police.
Suffice to say after 20 minutes a policeman arrives; a confused young man whose gaze shuffles between the indignant mullet woman waving the knife around and me sitting in my shirt and tie on a chair at the side of the room, reading a book of essays and trying not to lose my rag. He takes me into a quiet interview room and writes down what has happened. He writes “was detained with a bladed article” and I say I question the semantics because what he has written implies my knife was concealed. He writes “questions the semantics” and then “because he gave the knife to the security guard and ‘detained with a bladed article’ implies he was trying to hide it’.
He measures the knife, as if its petite physical dimensions would betray a truth larger than the synthesis of two tales. He sighs and says: “This is a bit of a strange one really; I’m not quite sure what to do…” We engage in a little chit-chat; he is half Sri Lankan, estranged from his father, has never visited that war-wracked teardrop in the Indian Ocean. Later he calls me from his mobile phone, to say he has spoken with his supervisor and they have decided to throw the report in the bin, or words to that effect. By now, however, the grapevine is ablaze: I have marched into magistrates manning a machete; the editor of a rival newspaper group has called my apoplectic editor for a quote. I turn off my phone, climb in the car, drive home and pull the duvet over my head. Sometimes it’s all you can do.