Thursday 24 August 2023

PUTTING ON THE RITZ by Rob Molan, a pint of bitter

 29 September 2009

James cleans himself slowly at the sink. The stench from the toilet cubicle disgusts him. After washing his face, he runs his fingers through his longish hair and studies his face in the mirror. The black lines under his eyes have not gone away.

‘I mean, Henry the Eighth had the right answer didn't he?” James listens in silence. “Didn't like the way the church was being run. So set up his own. Also, showed his women who was boss. I mean, my parents didn't call me Henry for nothing.’

‘Don't you agree my friend?’

‘I am with you Henry.’

The other man is much older than James. He is wearing a short sleeved vest and track suit bottoms. His face is very lined, suggesting a hard life.

There is a rattle of keys and the door is opened.

‘Lights out in five minutes guys. Time to get some sleep eye,’ says the warder.

‘Always a pleasure to spend a night in the Ritz officer,’ says Henry.

James laughs softly to himself. The Ritz brought back so many memories for him. He climbs into his bunk and pulls the blanket over his head and turns to settle down.

He had lost all sense of time since arriving. The monotonous and repetitive regime made every day seem the same. This was not the way to look after the incarcerated, he thought. Our society should be better than this. He tries to recall which day it was his lawyer was meeting him to discuss his appeal. The prospect of spending fifteen years inside was unthinkable.

As usual, darkness prompted him to go back over past events in his mind. Each night he reaches the same conclusion. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and there was no point beating himself up over how he reacted. His thoughts are rudely interrupted.

‘I'm Henry the Eighth, I am, I am. I got married to the widow next door,’ his cellmate sings. An unwanted lullaby to settle James down for another night in hell.

17 August 2009

‘To conclude, I draw the jury's attention to my client's character. He has a successful career and devotes time to raising funds for good causes. What possible reason could he have for carrying out the offence alleged?’

The barrister pauses to take a sip of water. He is a stocky and middle aged. His wig sits at an awkward angle on his head. It cries out for someone to adjust it.

‘When you take this into account, together with the inconsistencies in the eye witness testimony of the taxi driver and lack of any DNA evidence, serious doubt must be cast on the prosecution case. So I urge you to let my client walk free from this court as an innocent man.’

James studies the jury as the closing statement comes to an end. Some female members of the jury are conscious of his piercing blue eyes staring at them and avert his look.

The judge starts her summing up. She looks over the top of her glasses as she addresses the jurors. She bears a passing resemblance to Meryl Streep and speaks slowly and clearly as she speaks. James zones out at this point. His eyes focus on the elaborate cornicing in the court ceiling. When was the court built he wonders? Late Victorian? Or Edwardian perhaps? His mind wanders until the judge finishes and the security guard taps him on the shoulder and asks him to stand up. He is taken downstairs from the dock to a cell in the basement.

The cell has a damp odour. The walls are covered in graffiti. James studies the detail in to pass the time. Names, swear words, swastikas and drawings cover the brick work. James thinks about the people before him who had spent time there, awaiting their fate.

After ninety minutes or so he is taken back up to the court. He looks up to the ceiling as he stands in the dock. The court clerk asks the jury foreman to stand.

‘Have you reached a verdict upon which you are all agreed? Please answer 'yes or 'no'.’

‘Yes,’ a tall male juror with blonde hair replies.

James listens as 'guilty' verdicts are read out for the charges against him. Each one feels like a punch in the stomach.

The judge starts to address him about the sentence. He closes his eyes and wishes he was somewhere else.

4 May 2009

He wakes up in a place of sanctuary. The perfumed sheets and goose duvet have kept him safe and warm for the previous ten hours. Turning over, he notices that Sylvia has already got up. He hears her in the kitchen next door. A minute later she enters the bedroom. Her red hair is tied up in a bun. Without make up she still looks gorgeous to him.

“Hello, you,’ she says. ‘I do hope you slept well given the state you were in last night.’

Sylvia had been preparing for bed when he rang her intercom at ten o'clock. They had been seeing each other for nearly three weeks and he had stayed over in her flat a couple of times. She was attracted to him but was not sure whether she wanted to get too involved with him.

His arrival had taken her by surprise. He was not his usual suave self. His face was chalk white and, unusually for him, there was stubble on his chin. Once inside, he kept walking up and down, running his hands through this hair, and telling her what an anxious twenty four hours he had had. After a large glass of whisky he started to relax a little. She asked him why his left hand was so badly swollen and bruised.

‘It's a long story. In short, I got into a fight. The whole thing is a mess. Now I need to lie low for a bit.’

‘Have you seen a doctor?’

‘No, I am getting by with strong painkillers.’

“’Then how’s the other guy?”

‘He was a random stranger. He could have picked on anyone. I was just unlucky.’

‘What did the police say?

‘I kept them out of it.’

James continued to be evasive about the whole business and Sylvia concluded that rest was the best option for him. He would hopefully be more forthcoming in the morning.

However, that has not proved to be the case. He says very little over a breakfast of coffee and a croissant. Sylvia does not want to appear to be cross examining him and so chats about her plans for the rest of the weekend.

He goes for a shower. As he is drying himself with a towel, he can half hear the television in the lounge. A reporter is telling listeners that police want to question a man in relation to a suspicious death and have issued an artist's impression of him.

Once dressed, he returns to the lounge. It is an open plan design and he can see the top of the Royal Albert Hall from the window. There is no sign of Sylvia and he switches on the television. Twenty minutes later she enters the flat holding a shopping bag.

‘I had to pop out to get a few things. More coffee?’

‘That would be great, thanks.’

While she is making the coffee the intercom buzzes. Sylvia goes to the hallway and asks the caller to come up. Two minutes later two police officers enter the room. James is sitting on a large sofa covered with a floral print. One of the officers approaches him. Sylvia hovers behind the officer mouthing the words “sorry”. But insincerity is written all over her face.

‘James Crombie?’


‘I would like you to come to the station with us.’

3 May 2009

James opens his eyes. The curtains have not been closed and the bright sunlight makes him blink. His hand hurts like hell. The pain immediately reminds him of the events twelve hours before. His nose wrinkles at the smell of sweat from the clothes he has slept in all night. He drags himself out of bed and heads into the bathroom. He takes two painkillers and swallows them with a glass of water. His hand looks more swollen than it was last night. He wonders whether it is broken.

He decides to make some chamomile tea to help him relax. Wondering into the kitchen he clumsily prepares the drink with his uninjured hand. He switches on the radio. It is tuned to LBC news. The first bulletin at twelve thirty has nothing of interest. The radio is left tuned to the station.

There are fifteen messages on his phone. He decides to ignore them. He is tempted to call Nigel or Nick to talk. But the story would not come out right if he tried to tell it to either of them. As he sits at the pine kitchen table sipping the tea he notices that his heartbeat is stronger than usual. He takes several deep breaths and exhales but it doesn't help. He feels himself tensing each time the image from last flashes in his mind. The last time he saw that man.

He goes over his actions again and again. It had been a case of fight or flight and his response had been to confront the threat. Can anyone know in advance how they would react in such a situation?

James moves to the sitting room and sits down on a chair. He wants to have a shower and change but he doesn't have the energy. Time passes without him noticing it. He stares at the modern art print hanging on the wall opposite and repeatedly tries to count the number of stars in it. The radio is just white background noise and he starts dozing. Later, he comes round to hear the end of the news.

‘....found dead this morning in Argyll Road, Kensington. The cause of death has not been established and the man has not been identified yet. Police have asked anyone who might have information on the case to come forward.’

He stretches over to the coffee table, turns off the radio and jumps up. He stands completely still for a few seconds and then rubs his eyes. He looks at his watch. It is now nine o'clock and the light is fading outside, and there is a reddish glow in the sky.

 He decides he needs to get out of his flat and mentally runs through a list of his friends who could put him up. One name jumps out: Sylvia. He hasn't known her long but he feels that they have a real connection and she doesn't live far away. But he needs to clean up first.

He slowly undresses in his bedroom and heads for the bathroom. The shower takes longer than usual and drying himself proves a challenge. Dressing is also awkward but by nine forty five he is kitted out in a beige jacket, green polo shirt and black jeans. He swallows two more painkillers, grabs his keys and heads out into the night.

2 May 2009 (11.45pm)

James steps out onto Arlington Street. The evening is warm and his bow tie makes his neck feel uncomfortable. Heavy rain has fallen during the dinner and the lights of the Ritz reflect brightly in the puddles. He calls a black cab and provides an address close to Kensington High Street.

During the journey he decides on a change of plan. He asks the taxi driver to leave him at the twenty four hour shop on the High Street so he can buy cigarettes. He can walk home from there. The driver drops him off and thanks him for the generous tip.

After making his purchase, he leaves the shop, turns left and takes the first road on the right. It is a starry night and handsome red bricked mansion blocks line both sides of the well lit street. A figure suddenly emerges from an alleyway between two blocks. As the person moves into the light, it becomes clear that he is a tall burly man, looking unkempt with thick beard and stained clothes.

He comes up close to James. ‘Excuse me, sir. Can I trouble you for some cash?’

‘Let's see what I can do.” James reaches into his pocket and brings out some pound coins.

‘Ain't you got some folding money?’ He menacingly leans forward into James' face. He can smell the sourness of the man's breath.

James stands back a little. ‘I am sorry but I can't help any more. Good night.’

‘Not so fast. You and me haven't finished talking.’

‘I don't want any trouble.’

The man puts his left hand on James' shoulder and raises his right fist. “Your type don't...”

James throws a left hook at the man. It catches his chin and his head snaps back and hits the wall behind him, and he slumps to the ground. In that moment the younger James, the Oxford Blue, has come to life again. Or Rocky, as his sparring partners had nicknamed him. His hand throbs with pain. It feels like it has been smashed into concrete.

The man lies in silence. Blood runs from his face creating a red rivulet on the pavement. James bends over the prone body. He gazes at his face and checks for a pulse by placing two fingers on the inside of his wrist. There is no evidence of life.

He stands up. Time appears to stop. His mouth is dry and his hands are shaking. He reaches inside his jacket for his mobile with his right hand. But then he stops to think. How does he explain what happened to the police? He had been acting in self defence, hadn't he? But what if he is accused of using excessive force? There were no witnesses to testify either way. It's a big risk. He puts the phone back.

He looks around and starts to walk away. That soon turns into a sprint and within three minutes he reaches his block and catches the lift to the fourth floor. Once inside the flat, he heads into the bathroom to examine his aching hand. As he runs cold water over his hand, he sees his reflection. What has he become, he asks himself? He starts crying uncontrollably.

2 May 2009 (10pm)

‘Finally, I would like to extend my thanks to James Crombie. Without his efforts behind the scene, tonight's event would not have happened. Despite having a demanding job he found the time to find sponsors for the occasion and some top quality speakers.’

Sir Richard leads the diners in a round of applause. James stands up and takes a bow. He is nearly six foot tall and about forty years old, with a rugged jaw and expensive looking haircut. He looks comfortably at home in a black dinner suit. He sits down and lies back in his chair.

‘I look forward to you joining us for next year's event,’ Sir Richard concludes. ‘The work of the Prison Reform Society will continue, as it has done for the last eighty years, and your support and contributions are invaluable in sustaining its mission.’

He sits downs as the diners in the Marie Antoinette Suite bring their hands together in agreement.

“Did you not bring a companion?’ asks an older man sitting beside James.

“Sylvia my escort had to drop out at the last minute. She's a lawyer and had go at the last minute to York to represent someone. It's a real vocation for her. She keeps telling me no one is above the rule of law.”

‘She missed a great evening. How did you manage to get us into the Ritz this year?’

‘Contacts’, James replies with a wink. ‘To be more specific, I pulled a few strings with some clients and they agreed to cough up the cost of hiring the restaurant. They are all interested in schemes giving prisoners a work placement on release. They are quite taken with the success that that national shoe repair chain has had in training and employing ex prisoners.’ 

‘Excellent stuff. By the way, I never asked you how you first got involved in the Society.

‘Well, I am a bit of an idealist, despite being a City banker. I think we should use imprisonment as an opportunity to reform criminals. Change their behaviour and train them for work. Also, you will get the odd guy or girl who does something completely out of character and ends up inside. Losing their freedom should be sufficient punishment for them. Otherwise, they should be treated decently. If I ever ended up in that position that's what I would expect.’


About the author 


Rob started writing short stories during lockdown. To date, he's had a few published in anthologies produced by small publishers. He likes to experiment with different genres and styles of writing. 


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