The Fower Quarters: 13 - Prune Stones
Author(s): Sheena Blackhall
Copyright holder(s): Sheena Blackhall
This document contains language which some may find offensive
Rich man, poor man, beggar man..."
He could see the plate of yellow, stodgy custard as clearly as if it was set before him now. He could even feel the shudder of disgust that he always experienced when his mother propelled a spoonful of the sludge towards him, with several brown prunes nestling coyly in it.
"Now, we must keep you regular, Johnny," she'd coo regally. "Your bowels haven't opened for two days, and Mummy worries about her little man." To introduce levity into the horrid procedure, his mother assured him that each prune stone represented a trade or profession the infant John Jones might aspire to. For runes, read prunes. Surprisingly, when his mother counted the prunes, it always ended with the fifth prune stone, that wrinkled shard of fruit deposited on the rim of the congealing custard like a blob of excrement.
"Rich man!" his mother would gush prophetically. "My Johnny's going to be a rich man!"
Well, he hadn't let her down. He'd fulfilled the prediction, though he was moderately, not disgustingly, rich. People always needed a safe place to keep their money. And people always needed an honest man to take charge of that safe place. Just such a man was John Jones, bank manager, that rarest of the rare, a pearl without price, a wholly honest individual. He had never knowingly short-changed anyone in his entire life. With John, the scales of justice were balanced to a hairsbreadth; a feather would tilt them. He had a generous income, a comfortable house, a car, a wife, and ... the eighth prune stone loomed ominously from the remembered plate ... a son, Brian Jones Junior - thief.
Mr Jones had been astounded when the police had arrived at his door one wet and windy Thursday evening, escorting the fruit of his loins back to the parental bosom.
"Caught red-handed, him and his wee chum," explained the police officer almost apologetically, a little awed by the long avenue of poplars he had just marched along to reach the front door. The second officer cleared his throat and flicked open a notebook officiously.
"Naturally, he admits everything. He was literally caught with his hand in the till," he said, presenting the matter as a fait accompli. "It'll have to come up before the Sheriff, I'm afraid."
The officer's voice trailed off. Mr Jones had turned as white as the charge sheet before him. His son a petty criminal? Brian a thief! Never! No, it wasn't happening. It was a bad dream. He would pinch himself and it would go away. He literally did pinch himself. Quite hard. But the two policemen were still there.
Seated in court, Mr Jones convinced himself that it had been a minor aberration, that was all. People of his class didn't steal. They might occasionally indulge in creative accounting, but they certainly didn't steal. Peer pressure, that was what the solicitor would plead. A mere indiscretion. He was sure the Sheriff would be lenient; would let Brian off with a warning. After all it was a first offence - all the other boy's fault probably. Brian's co-accused was on Legal Aid but Mr Jones had hired the most expensive solicitor money could buy. Value didn't come cheap. He had seen the other solicitor grappling awkwardly with an armful of files. Not only had she not remembered her client's name, but she'd had to be reminded what the case was all about.
Inside the court, he'd seated himself well away from his son. It wouldn't look well for a man in his position to be seen consorting with criminals - not that he doubted Brian's good character for an instant. After all, his mother was a Sunday School teacher. With a shudder, he recalled that the head of the Sunday School worked on the local paper - might even turn up to cover the case.
Mr Jones had been advised to attend by his solicitor - but it was best if Brian remained beside Calum Weatherly, the other accused, until the Sheriff pronounced judgment. After all, it was entirely the Weatherly creature's fault that Jones Senior and Jones Junior found themselves in this accursed place.
From the far side of the court, he steeled himself to snatch a glimpse of the pair. Calum Weatherly had petty thief written all over him. If he'd carried a billboard proclaiming, "I'm a kleptomaniac", or screamed that message aloud, the fact couldn't have been more obvious.
He was a one-man crime wave. John grimaced as he stared at the cheap weasel's face, that girlish mouth, the receding brow and the long, lank, unwashed curls of the hardened felon. Cocky and streetwise, Weatherly would never take a straight path if a crooked one was available.
With a squirm of near-dismay, John confronted the fact that nothing would have given him greater pleasure than to slam that smug little smirk into the plush red carpeting of the courtroom floor; to grind it into an indecipherable pulp; to extinguish Weatherly as one might crush a cigarette end into an ashtray, or scrape an offensive bug into animal confetti. For some reason, his son Brian idolised the creature, even aped his mannerisms and copied his style of dress. But he was certain his son's obsession with this gutter-Svengali would be a transient affair.
Mr Jones had never had occasion to enter the city court before. It was housed within the Town House, grand in its towers and turrets, which soared to the Atlantic-grey sky in neo-Baronial exuberance. Here or hereabouts had beat the official heart of the city since the 13th century. As a child on a school outing, he had visited the oldest part of the building, closed now forever to the public. His history teacher, a Mr Malcolm, had told the class with some relish that at one time the Tollbooth had housed a Scottish version of the guillotine, known euphemistically as the Maiden and kept exclusively to dispatch riotous or errant nobility. The common orders, however, were publicly hanged within sight of the Tollbooth windows, unless the condemned person happened to be a warlock or witch, in which case the citizenry were treated to a "roastin" on the grassy sweep near the seafront. In those distant times, John reflected, hangings were as common as community service orders are today for similar offences. He looked at Weatherly, and allowed himself the luxury of imagining that reptilious person dancing at the end of a gibbet.
Despite the circumstances, his civic pride had blossomed on entering the renovated Town House. It was a happy marriage of mediaeval and modem; at the entrance was an exquisitely carved mock minstrel's gallery. But what greeted anyone stepping in from the cold wet flagstones outside was the long sweep of plush red carpet, fixed with gleaming slats of bronze, set on grey granite slabs and surrounded by polished, natural wood: not a hint of plastic laminate in sight. The Clerk of the Court had stopped him on his way up the steps. "Spectator, sir?"
John had coloured momentarily. "Parent," he'd answered tersely. Without a word passing between father and son, their paths had diverged in the courtroom, Brian to sit with Weatherly, who looked as if he was about to attend a rave, and John Jones Senior to sit alone.
Awaiting the Sheriff's arrival, Mr Jones examined the court minutely, terrified that anyone even remotely known to him would be there. Six months ago, he had sacked an employee for petty pilfering - the sum amounting to pence. What if he were here? Behind him, the public gallery sloped upwards like an anatomy theatre awaiting the dissection of a corpse below. The benches in the gallery resembled kirk pews: Calvin, with a hint of Popery since the long wooden pews were padded. Evidently the public was there to have its soul wrung, not its withers.
There was the faint hum of air conditioning and the sensation of being marooned from the world, cut off from the commerce and converse of the town, with the expectation of some mystic, ritual ceremony about to reveal itself, backed by all the crushing weight of history, tradition, and morality. Tier upon tier, the gallery rose up behind him, bearing its unsavoury human cargo. The air was acrid with the stench of grimy trainers and grubby anoraks, the unmistakable stench of human poverty and degradation. Here sat the second-rate, the down at heel, the deviant, the dispossessed, all the scum of society with morals as grey as their Rab C. Nesbitt vests. Earrings and Doc Martin boots predominated amongst the males. The women sat, coarse and defiant, smeared with the war paint of their kind. The body language was brutal, the bodies even more so. Mr Jones retreated into the refuge of his tweed coat, reluctant to remove it.
He had barely acclimatised himself to the central heating when he was joined on his left by a drunk, and on his right by a stunningly pretty woman elegantly dressed in a dove-grey velvet suit, set off by a pearl necklace and lilac blouse. "House of Fraser type," he said to himself approvingly. No doubt she too had been summoned to this awful place because of a wayward child. Somehow, the ordeal seemed bearable knowing another shared it. He glanced approvingly at her chic, immaculately-groomed hair and carefully manicured hands, noting the trio of rings on the left - wedding, engagement and eternity. He wondered which of the pimply delinquents she had the gross misfortune to be linked with. His reverie was disturbed by a resounding rumble, percolating from the subterranean coils of his drunken neighbour's digestive organs. "Silence in court" roared the court officer.
The drunk hiccuped and wiped a handful of filthy fingernails across his mouth. Obviously he hadn't shaved for days and his chin resembled a hedgehog with mildew. He was attired in an Oxfam coat, circa 1963, of indetenninate shape and several sizes too small. Either it had shrunk in the wash or had been bought before he had reached his full stature of five foot two. Bony wrists, matted with ginger hair, protruded from the coat's arms, one bearing a plastic green Mickey Mouse watch, Mickey's ears clicking on and off with every second. A tartan scarf, veteran of a hundred cup ties, was knotted around the drunk's Adam's apple, its ends hanging like two strangled ferrets which had recently escaped from a tumble drier. His trousers were flared and ran out of material mid-way down his calves. Thereafter two red and hairy calves disappeared sockless into a pair of tattered gym-shoes which appeared to have walked round the world once and were now on the last lap of their return joumey. Appalled, Mr Jones edged nearer the woman.
"Ye OK, pal?" wheezed the drunk. "Wid ye like a wee sook frae ma bottle?"
Feeling his gorge rise, Mr Jones furiously shook his head and covered his nose with a blue silk handkerchief. Every exhalation of breath that the drunk made seemed to be manufacturing God knows how many varieties of viruses. Mr Jones made a mental note that he would need to fumigate his coat when he returned home.
"Tha's aaricht, pal. Aa the mair fur me," responded the drunk cheerily.
John Jones concentrated hard on the scenery. Straight before him was the dock where the accused would stand. He had imagined that spikes would crown the small wooden compartment, an image he had carried in his head from comic-cut days. Instead, the plain polished wood was topped with tinted glass. It was entered by a gate, thereby setting it apart from the rest of the world. The front pew and the circular table beyond where the clerk of the court sat were the domain of the legal profession. For a split second, seeing the black-gowned figures flit to and fro, John was reminded of his graduation day when, robed and brightly hooded, he had received his Master's degree. But these were the funereal blacks of the Law. Like split-backed cockroaches, they scurried to and fro, laden with files, briefly addressing their clients in a curious mixture of standard English and urban Scots. Under their robes, these men wore silk ties and tailored suits, along with expensive leather shoes, smartly buffed and waxed. One or two sported white bow ties. Beside them, their female colleagues looked dowdy, apart from one young legal aspirant who had difficulty keeping her hair out of her papers, and who looked like Jane Fonda.
To the left of the court was a door through which prisoners in custody were led up from the cells, handcuffed to a shirt-sleeved policeman. Over to the right, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, were hunched the gentlemen of the Press. Mr Jones felt a frisson of fear descend his spine. Only last week, he had kicked one sub-editor out of his office for seeking a loan. Was he here today? Anxiously, he scanned the faces. No, he recognized none of them. Two cub reporters sat restless and impatient. One old hack, with bent spectacles and a tattered grey raincoat, gazed at the ceiling with a bored expression, tie askew and buttons undone. Surely he'd seen it all before a thousand times. The drunk beside Mr Jones hiccuped again.
"Upstanding for the Sheriff" a voice cried crustily. Mr Jones, the drunk and the House of Fraser lady all struggled to their feet while the Sheriff entered the room in a magisterial swirl of black. All eyes moved to the high wooden canopy with its carved supporting pillars, as the Sheriff seated himself in his red leather chair. Enthroned like an eagle, thought John, with the power to tear his son's reputation asunder. The Sheriff was wearing a wig, grey as dressed granite, curled as tight as the scroll on a marble tomb. A cameo of William Pitt the Younger darted into John's head, and quickly skipped out again. The lawman's white cravat was immaculately starched and pressed. Ministers of the Kirk might be lords spiritual, but here the law was worshipped, and carried out to the letter.
Below the Sheriff's wooden eyrie sat the Clerk of the Court and emblazoned high above both was the legend: "nemo me impune lacessit" - Wha daur meddle wi me? Over that stood a silver and gold unicorn, its haunches in chains, opposing a golden lion rampant. Both were clawing a heraldic shield, decorated with the emblems of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England. From the tip of the unicorn's horn, John's eyes roved to the lofty height of the ceiling. Like hangman's rope, six slender lines of steel dropped down, six plain lit globes dangling from the end of each of them.
A Court Officer approached the public gallery and intoned, "Would James Nelson step forward?"
Behind him, John could hear coughs and murmurs and it became obvious that James Nelson would not be forthcoming.
"Done a runner, the wee swine," commented a large lady from the rear. "I'll get the bastard at hame, nae fear!"
The next case was called and was promptly led up from the cells. The accused looked like a cross between Cassius Clay and Captain Pugwash. He had an earful of earrings and one extremely black eye. He bore a remarkable resemblance to Neanderthal man, an illustration of whom John had once seen in the City Museum. Charged with breach of the peace and assault, he accepted his fine of £100 like a lamb and waved cheerfully to the assembly on his way out. A Rastafarian youth in waist-length dreadlocks was assisted from the premises for swearing.
"Would William Higgins step forward, please?" called the court officer. The drunk beside John jolted alive, like a jerky puppet.
"Yon's ma pal. Big Wully. The pigs done him fur choring a Giro," he announced enthusiastically. Built like an Irish haystack, with a huge beer paunch and several buttons missing from his XXL lumberjack shirt, William Higgins hung his head in shame, his abundance of beery whiskers buried in his vest.
"Ah didna mean nae hairm," he apologised, oblivious to the irony of the double negative. "Ah wis jist skint, like, ye ken, yer worship, sir."
The Sheriff sighed, and dismissed him with 12 hours of community service. Higgins lurched up the slope like a thunderous bear towards Mr Jones's pew. The drunk with the tartan ferrets round his neck embraced his friend warmly, exuding a vinous compassion from every pore.
"Kent ye'd get aff, Wully. Come on roon the boozer fur a wee hauf."
As the duo left, the bank manager felt in his pocket to reassure himself that his wallet and valuables had not left with them. They had not. That was a relief, anyway. He leant forward, and tapped his son's solicitor on the shoulder.
"You specifically said to be here at 10 o'clock. I have an important meeting in half an hour. I wouldn't tolerate having to wait like this for a doctor or dentist, you know."
"The law is no respecter of time," said the solicitor, adding sententiously, "The mills of our legal system grind slow." Mr Jones slumped back in his seat, and smiled wanly at the House of Fraser woman.
"This is a ghastly place," he confided. She nodded sympathetically, maintaining a decorous silence. He speculated as to what field of work she might be in. Some sort of counselling probably. She had such a kind, caring face. He could tell she'd be a good listener. A family of criminals consumed the next half hour. Mary Duguid, the matriarch of the brood, was toothless and dwarfish and stood nervously twisting a huge handbag as she was accused of numerous charges of shoplifting. Mary was a discharged psychiatric patient who livid rough, who couldn't and wouldn't learn how to use the welfare benefit system. A posse of social workers had given up trying to explain it to her. "Address?" asked the Clerk of the Court.
"Duthie Park," replied Mary. "Or whyles, the Beach Boulevard in summer, like." Her eldest son, Shane, something of a beanpole with a ponytail, was charged and convicted of car theft. Donna, her daughter, was led struggling into the dock by a stout policeman, as if a panda were embracing a rabid hyena. "Donna Duguid," called the Sheriff sternly, "you are an utter pest to one and all. If you do not want another charge to be placed on your excessively long list, I suggest you quieten down and behave yourself forthwith."
Donna turned and smiled coquettishly at Calum Weatherly.
"Good God!" thought Mr Jones. "She knows Weatherly. That means she probably knows my son." Mentally he reminded himself to check the locks and security system when he went home. The Duguid family must account for half the crime in the City, he surmised, as the weary litany of their misdeeds proceeded. "In the blood, of course," he mused, quite mindless of the fact that Brian was likewise an accused person. His solicitor sat back in his seat.
"This is the last but one case to be heard before your son's," he whispered.
"Joseph McPhail," called the Clerk. McPhail stood accused of assault. A small, slight, terrified figure, rather like a lavatory brush with a head of curls, he looked incapable of knocking over a flea.
"My client admits that he head-butted his wife, M'Lud, thereby breaking her nose, but he did sustain a nasty cut to his forehead in the attack which required hospital attention. And it is to his credit that, when he realised Mrs McPhail's nose was broken, he did attempt to sort it. It could be argued, M'Lud, that he has suffered enough."
For the first time in that unbearably long morning, both the Sheriff and Mr Jones smiled.
"And quite how did Mr McPhail propose to sort his good lady's nose?" the Sheriff inquired. "With super-glue, perhaps?"
"My client and his wife have now become reconciled," the solicitor smoothly persisted, as though this fact somehow swept the broken nose under the carpet.
"One year's probation," pronounced the Sheriff.
But John Jones was no longer listening. Every nerve, every sinew, every muscle, was taut as a drum. Now it was Brian's turn. Please God let the Sheriff be lenient! Think what the scandal could do to him, if it leaked out. It was over in eight seconds. Released, pending social work inquiries; to be heard again in eight weeks' time. The axe not dropped, merely raised. Now he would have to endure the Social Work department. They'd be intolerably patronising; of course they would, to someone in his position. "Ding the feet frae yon heid bummer," was the Scots attitude, after all. Oh yes, it would be all his fault. Paternal deprivation. The parents were always blamed, weren't they, until the "the young offender" became the irresponsible adult? Anarchists, that's what social workers were. Well, he'd soon set them straight. He could buy and sell one of them twenty times over on his salary and investments.
He was still lost in gloomy thought when the next case was called.
"Ivy Hadden, step forward please".
To his amazement, the House of Fraser lady stood up and in a gravelly, guttural voice asked him to shift. Carrying her elegance like a shawl, she swept into the dock.
"Ivy Hadden, you are charged with causing a public nuisance by soliciting..."
As the policeman shut the gate behind her, she tapped his arm and quite audibly whispered, "Hey, Eddie, see yon mealie-mou'd git sittin aside me? Flasher, eh? Ye can aye tell. He's jist the very type."
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The Fower Quarters: 13 - Prune Stones. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 23 February 2024, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=558.
"The Fower Quarters: 13 - Prune Stones." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2024. Web. 23 February 2024. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=558.
The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech, s.v., "The Fower Quarters: 13 - Prune Stones," accessed 23 February 2024, http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=558.
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