Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Spring 2007 Results




The Demon Booze

Copyright © Ross Duffy 2007


No. 7 Police Court.

For eighteen tedious years Magistrate Hector Smithers had presided over the motley array of events enacted there. The first daily customers were always the prostitutes - arrested overnight. The drunks followed. Smithers detested his task for its sheer futility: the same faces kept reappearing.

In the cold light of morning the street prostitutes, make-up all awry, were a tawdry collection. With twinges of pity, he'd sometimes wonder what blow of fate had driven them to that path. And, mildly content with his own mundane marriage, it puzzled him that men would pay hard-earned cash for these battered bodies.

As to the drunks - well, he knew most by sight, even by name. Occasionally there would be a 'ring in', such as a young business executive whod over-done his night on the tiles. (A portent of future alcoholism? Smithers would wonder.) Generally the tyro anxiously scanned the courtroom, terrified an acquaintance might be present and spill the beans.

In that era the magistrate's sentencing options for drunks were limited: fine or imprison. Further futility, because the end result was usually the same - non-payment of the fine inevitably leading to imprisonment. When he reflected upon society's reluctance to rehabilitate, he had to concede many were long past redemption. On the positive side, he reasoned, at least the prison food and shelter fortified them for the next onslaught on the bottle.

But, overall, they were a pitiful sight. Derelict, bereft of confidence and self-respect. And finally abandoned by family and friends (for the bonds of loyalty have limits). Just occasionally there was a compassionate moment, as when a caring Salvo stood up in court to offer temporary refuge. At the start the magistrate had also been zealous and compassionate able to discover hopeful signs among many in the daily parade. Now, his lined face, receding grey hair and horn-rimmed glasses presented an aura of harshness. Endless disillusionment had eaten at his spirit.

***

23rd of March 1953.

Magistrate Smithers' sixtieth birthday. Some way to celebrate! he moans as he deals with the last of the prostitutes. Then a glance at his list of drunks produces an instant smile: Dominic Patrick O'Reilly! One of the few alcoholics with residual sparks of vitality. So, the morning will not be all gloom! He quickly imposes penalties on the other seven. Each had shuffled in, unshaven, bleary-eyed, clothing in tatters. Hard to imagine they were once cherished sons.

When his Clerk calls Dominic Patrick O'Reilly, there is a murmur of interest among the regular court watchers. And his few steps from cell to dock confirm O'Reilly's difference. There is a spring in his step. Despite a slight stoop, he stands over six feet tall. His clothes are worn and old-fashioned, but there is a neatness that indicates pride. His nose is beak-like and vividly red. Two bright pink circles, merging with his beard, outline the cheeks. Long, greyish hair and a bushy beard conceal his age. Despite his fall from grace, O'Reilly retains presence and, as he stands in the dock, he draws the attention of all in court.

(Many colourful stories had circulated about O'Reilly's earlier days, though fact and fiction had become blurred. But there was no dispute hed migrated to Australia some twenty years earlier. A brilliant lecturer in political science at the University of Dublin, he'd departed in haste. There were diverse explanations, ranging from misconduct with female students to threats from thugs incensed by his political speeches in the squares of Dublin. But O'Reilly had always declined to discuss his illustrious academic past - or the other allegations. After arriving in Australia he became unsettled, wandered aimlessly about the countryside and finally drifted into ever-heavier drinking and petty strife.)

The Clerk reads the charge:

Dominic Patrick O'Reilly, of no fixed place of abode, unemployed labourer, you are charged that on the 22nd day of March 1953 you were drunk in a public place, to wit Loxton Square, City. How do you plead: guilty or not guilty?

The defendant forces his body to its full height. He runs long fingers through his thick hair, as though combing it. Momentarily, he seems lost in thought. Then he directs dark, alert eyes at the magistrate and, in musical Irish brogue, responds:

"Well Your Worship, sir, Oive been giving much serious consideration to the question of my plea. As your good self would know, we are dealing with a matter of cardinal importance. Sure and faith, the liberty of the subject is at stake! Oi invite you to recall the events of that blessed year of 1215 - when brilliantly progressive King John, the idol of his loyal subjects, granted Magna Carta at Runnymede. Ever since that glorrrious occasion, may Oi remind you, countless noble judges and lawyers - from the lowly to the mighty - have battled resolutely, without fear or favour, to uphold the basic rights of the humble citizen.

"Your Worship may well ask, 'What rights?' Well, begorra, a man's right to personal freedom, to live out his dismal existence without molestation from an oppressive state. In the words of one famous lawyer, a tireless battler for the precious rights of the downtrodden, 'If Oi have the courage and good fortune to save but one miserable soul from the tyrannical grasp of officialdom, my God and my country will have been well served.'."

The defendant pauses for breath. The prosecutor, Sergeant Liam Higgins, is himself an Irishman. He's often cringed at the bad image O'Reilly projected of his homeland. And now he recalls his personal humiliation on the several occasions the two had crossed swords in court.

"What the Hell's he up to this time?" he mutters, shuffling in his chair. "Please, dear God, no more fancy defences!"

Magistrate Smithers allows no sign of amusement, for he must not encourage O'Reilly. Nor does he interrupt though, like the prosecutor, he hasn't the vaguest idea where this is leading. Better, perhaps, to just let him unload? But he has planned an early birthday lunch with some confreres, so he hopes O'Reilly will get on with it.

"Well, sir," the defendant resumes, "naturally Oi've carefully weighed up the many defences Oi might fairly invoke in protection of the liberty of the subject. Firstly, let us consider that part of Loxton Square where the police arrested me. Oi' pose this fundamental question: was it in fact a public place, as the prosecution alleges in the charge? Oi surely doubt it. Rarely any members of the public there, apart from me and a few social friends. And Oi also wonder if all the correct paper work's been done to have it officially declared a public place. Your Worship knows what the regulations require, like formal notices in that funny little Government Gazette."

Sergeant Higgins murmurs, "My God," and symbolically draws a hand across his brow.

The defendant calls for a glass of water. Begrudgingly, Higgins pours from the jug on the bar table. The slight tremor of O'Reilly's hand as he accepts the glass draws attention to the frayed cuff of the old greatcoat.

"Next, Your Worship, there's the wee matter of the definition of 'drunkenness'. The police officers will surely confirm Oi was alert, active and on my feet at all times during our little confrontation. So it would be mighty hard for them to convince you - that is, beyond all reasonable doubt - that Oi'd reached the glorrrious state that the law deems to be 'drunkenness'."

Still with serious mien, he slowly surveys his courtroom audience. "And then this morning in the cells there came to me this sudden blinding flash, a God-inspired revelation you may venture: the booze the miserable publican sold my friend must have been contaminated by some weird substance! It was definitely 'crook', 'off'. Oi know this to be the truth, because the very moment it passed my lips Oi was beset by strange feelings and weird thoughts. Never anything like it in all my long experience of things liquid.

"And, Oi've no need to remind your learned self, you can't convict me of this offence unless there was the criminal intent - the mens rea you legal characters are always spouting about. Normally, Oi would have demanded a chemical analysis of the dreadful stuff, and that would have given the conclusive answer. But, alas, we downed the lot, every single drop. However, in summary, if it was indeed crook booze that led me to act in an unseemly manner, then the accused man standing before Your Worship is truly innocent."

In the tense silence that follows, the magistrate and prosecutor are left to contemplate the dismal picture of time, expense and inconvenience to the legal system painted by these "threats." And the lay audience is hushed, convinced now they will witness an intriguing and unique forensic battle. The defendant stands calmly, slowly stroking his thick beard, as though choosing his next bombshell.

Finally he turns once more to face the magistrate. "However," he says quietly, "Oi've heard today is the celebration of your birth. So Oi would not wish to be making this prosecution a long and exhausting event for you."

Magistrate Smithers does not permit one facial muscle to move.

"Being a fair and God-fearing man, Oi've been anxiously weighing up all the relevant facts, the pros and cons, so to speak. In all honesty, Oi'm now forced to admit to myself that ... maybe ... just maybe, on this felicitous occasion Oi imbibed a wee drop too much of the demon booze."

"Am I then to take that as a plea of guilty, Mr O'Reilly?" the magistrate asks, slowly and deliberately, unable to completely disguise his relief.

"Well ... Oi would consider that a verrry reasonable course for you to adopt - in all the circumstances."

"Very well, I'll record a conviction."

Sergeant Higgins then summarises the facts: At about seven o'clock the previous night police officers were summoned to a disturbance at the small park known as Loxton Square. They observed an altercation involving the defendant, five other men and the defendant's sister. The woman was elderly, and wore a green hat with a long yellow feather. On several occasions she yelled: 'Blessed Ireland for ever' as she kept prodding two of the men with a bent umbrella. All members of the group were grossly affected by liquor. Before they were arrested and placed in two police vans, the woman bit Constable Crump on the ear and threw Sergeant McPhee's helmet into a pond. Asked the reason for the disturbance, Reilly had replied, 'Political misconceptions, of course.'

"Do you allege this defendant has any previous convictions?" asks the magistrate, now fighting to maintain a straight face.

"The defendant has 196 previous convictions, practically all for drunkenness, sir," the Sergeant replies.

"Not so," says O'Reilly. "198."

He is correct. The Records Section has failed to catch up with two convictions in the previous month.

"Mr O'Reilly, do you wish to make any submissions on the question of penalty?"

"I surrrely do. And thanks to Your Worship for the opportunity: You see, this whole episode was mooost unfortunate. My beloved sister Colleen arrived from Dublin only four days earlier. Oi arranged for a loyal friend to meet us at the square - to celebrate Colleen's visit to this fine land. But the stupid man also brought three of his useless relatives, along with a couple of flagons of the demon sherry and port. Oi admit to gettin' a bit carried away - what with the joy of seeing Colleen again, an' all - and after a few drinks things got a wee bit out of control."

O'Reilly pauses for a deep breath and again views his captive audience.

"Oi must tell you, sir, my daily life is no bed of roses. Oi am, so to speak, without a permanent abode. The riverbank, the parklands, and the shadows of the City bridge - these are my habitations. Just occasionally, in the depth of winter, a seat at the railway station becomes my bedroom of elegance. Old newspapers are my only blankets. But each morning Oi still seek out soap and water - to scrub up well to face mankind. Oi confess, Your Worship, in moments of weakness Oive presented myself at one of the Salvo refuges. Still, a man has his pride and can't sponge too often on that revered charity."

O'Reilly takes another sip from the glass. He notes the magistrate fidgeting with his papers, although he has not yet interrupted.

"So, after that little résumé, Oi now beseech Your Worship, at this mooost auspicious stage of my miserable existence, to dip deep into your well of mercy. My earnest plea: don't send me to gaol. Now that my sweet Colleen's here, Oi've decided to change my ways. I'm going to take proper steps to overcome my little problem." (He elects not to detail the steps, nor explain how his sister's presence is likely to assist.) "And Oi've decided to engage myself in robust employment. A kind friend's offered me a job as his assistant - he's a plasterer by trade."

A wit in the body of the court chuckles. "That'll be terrific," he mutters, "Dominic's always plastered!"

O'Reilly then lectures the stoical magistrate on the dominant principles of sentencing, all distilled from his reading of the latest legal literature. "So, as Your Worship well knows," he concludes, "one powerful consideration is the matter of rehabilitation. Now just cast your gaze upon me, for Oi stand before you a truly humble man just burning with the desire to be rehabilitated."

This submission momentarily silences Magistrate Smithers. But then, stifling all emotion, he announces, "Thank you for that, Mr O'Reilly. You've been most helpful. Seven days' imprisonment. Next case please."