Jeremy Clarke

Caught out

A social leper tells you of his miserable existence

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First thing Monday morning I was in court. No car tax. When I eventually found the magistrate's court, it was like the Marie Celeste. No defendants hanging round the entrance smoking, no receptionist behind the glass in the foyer, no ushers, no solicitors briefing anxious clients in the corridor at the last moment, no cleaners, nobody.

Hearing muffled voices, I pushed open a heavy door and found myself in Court One. Inside, facing me, were three magistrates, two men and a woman, seated in a row. Below them, sitting at a large table, were a gowned lady prosecutor and a representative from the police in a dark suit. And that was it. No reporter, no solicitors, no witnesses, no other defendants, no stony-faced relatives. Just these magistrates sitting there like the last turkeys in the shop. They looked as glad to see me as I was glad to see anyone at all after coming such a long way.

Right off, I was warmly invited to stand off to one side in front of a solitary chair and introduce myself to the court by confirming my name and address. The magistrates beamed down at me from their elevated position while I did so. All smiles they were. Even the lady prosecutor was fixing me with this radiant grin. The head magistrate, male, nice tan, film-star teeth, tailored jacket, gold cufflinks, wished me good morning on behalf of his bench, then he and his colleagues settled back, while the lady prosecutor got the ball rolling by reading out the details of the offence.

If I thought an account of my wrong-doing would send a small cloud across the magistrates' cheerful countenances, I was mistaken. On the contrary, the magistrate on the left wing, whose head, from his neck to the top of his bald pate was scarlet with high blood pressure, leaned in towards his chief, and, shaking with suppressed laughter, whispered to him what I can only imagine was a very funny story.

He continued to whisper and shake with laughter, with brief intermissions to allow the head magistrate to pay attention when necessary to the case at hand, for as long as I was standing in the witness box. The head magistrate evidently found the story every bit as amusing as the narrator did. He became engrossed by it, returned to it whenever possible and soon he too was shaking with barely suppressed hilarity. My confident guilty plea went completely unacknowledged. When the time came for him to ask me if I had anything to say in my defence, he had real difficulty readjusting his face to more serious matters.

I wanted the thing over and done with as quickly as possible because my car was in the carpark next door with no ticket on it and the tax had run out. In any case, I have absolutely no fictive imagination. I couldn't make up a coherent cock-and-bull story if I wanted to. And the truth will out anyway is what I always say. So I kept it brief and stuck with the truth. I told the court that basically I couldn't afford to buy any car tax at the time of the offence because I'd spent all my money on drink.

Even an admission of extreme moral turpitude such as this failed to depress anyone who happened to be listening. The lady prosecutor's encouraging smile, if anything, intensified. And the lady magistrate who was unfortunately too far away from her male colleagues to be party to the joke was clearly a woman of the world because her engaging smile never faltered.

Before passing sentence, the magistrate made a bit of a show of protocol. He turned first to his lady colleague and canvassed her for an opinion, then he went into conference with the scarlet magistrate, who made yet another amusing comment which made them both laugh.

Turning genially to me, he fined me £120, with £45 costs, and ordered me to pay £45 back duty. Then his face lost its cheerfulness for a moment. There was a debt of gratitude outstanding. 'Mr Clarke,' he said, 'I'm going to reduce the fine of £120 to £60 in recognition of the fact that you've turned up – which is more than most people do, I'm afraid. I'd like to thank you, Mr Clarke, very much, for coming.'

I stood down. Four broad smiles lit my way to the door. I gave a stiff little salute as I passed the bench. It wasn't till I got outside that I realised I'd been standing before the majesty of the law with my flies wide open. Black Levi 501 flies. All four silver buttons undone, fabric parted, no underpants.