In my late twenties, it was not unusual for me to wake up in a police cell wearing a paper suit. Waking to glazed tiles and a high barred window, and not knowing how one got there, is a bad way to start the day. On this particular occasion, I opened my eyes and pieced together that the party in the nurses’ home had gone on all night, that I had continued to drink, and that I had then gone to a football match. The last thing I remembered clearly was standing on the terrace drinking cider and vodka out of a vodka bottle. (My pals told me later that two St John Ambulance guys had carried me out of the ground on a stretcher.) At that time I was a trainee psychiatric nurse. Booze at the social club in the hospital grounds was cheap, and the nurses were a hard-drinking crowd. There were drinking parties in the nurses’ home and we used to throw barbiturates and anti-depressants in the fruit punch.
The cell was light, airy and clean. It was an altogether pleasanter place to wake up in than my closet in the nurses’ home. The other cell occupant was a chirpy young East End lad. ‘Alright?’ he said, when he saw that my eyes were open. He had been arrested for non-payment of fine, but didn’t seem in the least put out. These things happened, was his attitude. And today was his wedding day. He was to be married at noon. ‘Gary,’ he said, offering his hand.
I told him how sorry I was. He was confident of making it to the register office in time, however. Shortly we would be taken to court, he said, and he doubted very much whether a magistrate would remand him in custody for non-payment of fine on his wedding day. Why didn’t I come to his wedding? I looked like I needed a drink. He was right and I accepted his kind invitation.
An avuncular police sergeant brought us plastic cups of tea and our bagged clothes and told us to get ready. A little later he returned with the young bride-to-be. She passed a suit, white shirt and tie in through the sliding window in the cell door. Her pretty face was puckered with concern. She didn’t seem in the least surprised to have found him in police custody. Nor was she cross. She seemed only anxious about the time. My cellmate introduced us and asked her if she would mind if I came to the wedding. Her name was Linda. As amiable a person as her fiancé, Linda said, ‘You’re welcome, Jel.’
Then we were taken outside and loaded into a police lorry, the interior of which was divided into tiny individual cells. Mine had a porthole. We called at several police stations en route to pick up more prisoners. Finally, the lorry halted outside Stratford Magistrates’ Court and I was taken out and led down to a holding cell beneath the court. I felt so nauseous all I wanted to do was sit or lie down. But, almost immediately, my name was called and a custody officer took me up some stairs, which led directly into the dock.
The public gallery of the court was almost full with spectators. The weather was cold; the court well heated. Presumably a good number of them had come to keep warm and be entertained at the same time. There was an atmosphere of gaiety, as at a variety show, and I heard titters at my dishevelled appearance and crapulent condition. When I was sonorously accused of being ‘found drunk at West Ham’, the titters turned to outright laughter. My croaked plea of guilty drew more hilarity from the public gallery. I was a knockabout turn, apparently.
The chairman of the magistrates needed no advice in my case. I could choose between a £20 fine or a day in custody, he said. Brightening, I said I’d have the day in custody. More laughter. The custody sergeant took me down, but instead of shoving me back in the cell, he kindly showed me the street exit. I went out and re-entered the building by the freemen’s entrance and took a seat in the public gallery. I was just in time to hear my new friend Gary, resplendent and uncomfortable in collar and tie, being remanded in custody. He turned and shrugged his astonishment at his bride-to-be, also seated in the public gallery. ‘I’m sorry about that,’ I said to his bride as she made her way out. ‘I’ll bloody kill him when he gets out,’ she said. But she said it lovingly. That these things happen seemed to be her philosophy also, and I felt a pang of envy at his having found such a wonderful helpmeet.
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