This is an extract, the opening one and a half chapters of a novella I began last year then didn’t get round to finishing, I think because I did so much planning I lost the impetus of the story, but it’s still sort of nagging at me so I am puzzling over it again. It is called Thirty Days on the Fourth Floor
‘You have displayed a callous disregard for the well-being of others. This is your third appearance in my court within a single year and I therefore have no hesitation in sentencing you to thirty days incarceration in the hope that this time you will learn that there will be no tolerance of persistent law-breaking in this City.’
The gavel was tapped lightly down on the bench in front of Judge Givens and by the time the bailiff had led Jeremiah ‘Roxx’ Weston from the court, the Judge’s robes were billowing behind him as he went through the door marked ‘Private’ at the back of the court. Roxx didn’t care. Thirty lousy days playing pool and cards was nothing, it would go by like a flash, the perfect spring break.
Moments later he was entering a room where a number of others were waiting. There appeared to be a dispute between a clerk of the court and someone who was presumably in Roxx’s situation. This woman wanted to phone her kids, let them know she’d got thirty days this time and they should go and stay with her sister till she could figure out the best thing to do. The clerk of the court wasn’t allowing any calls. A police officer came over to encourage the outraged detainee to step back. Another, male, detainee came forward, angry and upset. The clerk was saying,
‘Ma’am, as I already told you, you will be allowed one phone call once you reach the detainment center, but not until then. I’m sorry, but I don’t make the rules. Sir, step back please, the same goes for you. You can call your secretary later.’
And having said her piece, the clerk turned and left the room. The detainee continued to rant and swear, but more quietly and in a corner. It was now almost five o’clock, the court was closed for the day.
The bailiff cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we will now be leaving the court complex. Please stay in line and follow me.’
He nodded to a nearby police officer who opened the door for them all to pass out and into the hall, hesitantly following after the bailiff. In case anyone got any ideas, there were a number of officers lining the corridor.
The woman with the children wasn’t giving up. She tried to catch the fast-walking bailiff up, calling out
‘Where are we going? We have a right to know? I’ve got children…’
‘Just keep moving, ma’am,’ advised a police officer, but she shook him off.
‘I want to know where …’
But now they were at the exit, surrounded by police officers, and the outer door was opening on a parking bay at the back of the court complex. A police van was waiting, engine purring. The rear doors stood open and the group was chivvied inside, and as they were put into their seats and safety belts were locked into place across them, a roll-call began and their names were ticked off by an officer as the bailiff disappeared round to the front of the vehicle.
Immediately the rear doors were locked and the vehicle swung out of the parking bay and onto the road. The woman with the children began a heated debate with the man with the secretary and a voice spoke next to Roxx. He turned to look at the scrawny white woman sitting next to him.
‘You get thirty days too?’ She asked. He nodded.
‘We all did.’ She said, ‘we were talking about it before you came. Every one of us – look, nine of us – we all got thirty days. Don’t you think that’s weird? What are they going to do to us? Where are they taking us?’
‘It’ll be fine,’ Roxx told her, ‘don’t sweat it. What so we all got thirty days? We all do the same thing or something?’
‘You do drugs?’ She asked.
‘No. Drugs is a fool’s game. What even Mrs Mum over there, she got thirty days? What did she do?’
‘Speeding, I think she said. Not just once, just all the time, never paid her fines. I was the drugs. Selling. Third time. I just really needed the money. Why d’you get thirty days?
‘Red lights. I just like running through them. It’s nothing, it’s not like I hurt anyone, it’s just a laugh, a buzz. But they got this software catches your license-plate, so they caught me. Again. Thirty ain’t nothing, be out in fifteen on good behavior.’
‘That’s disgusting, that is, you should be ashamed of yourself. You could kill someone doing that.’ The Mum told him. He glared at her.
‘How’s it any worse than what you do? Speeding? That’s dangerous. You’re more likely to kill someone than I am. And you got kids, that’s irresponsible, Missus.’
‘I was always in control of the car,’ she began, but someone else disagreed with her.
And then it happened, they all started shouting at each other, and the row went on until the van pulled over and stopped, and the rear doors were unlocked.
A couple of officers started unlocking them and sending them out onto the pavement where they stood in a shifty-looking bunch surrounded by police and twitching curtains. They were outside an apartment block.
‘Where’s the prison?’ The Druggie asked no one in particular. They were herded into the front door of the building and corralled into the lift in twos.
Fifteen minutes later, Roxx was walking in the front door of an apartment on the fourth floor. He looked around him, puzzled.
‘I’m beginning to think this is a bit odd.’ He told the Druggie. ‘Maybe we been selected for special ops or something.’
‘Why are we here?’ The Druggie asked the bailiff, who ignored her.
‘Where are we? What the fuck is going on?’ The man with the secretary wanted to know. Everyone was edgy and tense. Where was the nice conventional prison?
‘Keep walking through to the sitting room. Sit down, shut up and listen, then we can get on with things a little quicker.’ The bailiff urged, and reluctantly, and with the encouragement of a couple of police officers, they complied. Roxx counted nine detainees, six men, three women, and besides the bailiff there were twelve officers. It was a squeeze.
‘Now,’ said the bailiff in a big loud voice, ‘I want everyone to take a seat at the table, and then I can explain the procedure.’
A couple of people half-heartedly protested, but everyone sat quickly enough.
‘That’s better.’ Said the bailiff, and Roxx felt like he was in nursery school again. ‘You will each get one phone call, you will get a hot meal, a shower, and a change of clothes. You will be wearing prison uniform for the next thirty days. You will remain in this apartment for the next thirty days. You will not leave until you have served your sentence as laid down by the ruling of the court. The front door is the only safe exit from the apartment and this will be kept locked. While you are here you will be rehabilitated and, hopefully while justice is done, you will learn to make wiser choices in the future.’
He paused and a slew of questions had to be dealt with before he could continue.
‘In case of emergency we will evacuate the apartment. There will be no – I repeat no – wardens, guards, police officers or any other official presence within the apartment for the entirety of the thirty days. However, the apartment will be under constant surveillance night and day, but any intervention will be in an emergency only. Just so you know, this is day one. I will return on day thirty if – I repeat if – all conditions are fulfilled and it is deemed by the court that rehabilitation has taken place and you are all fit to return to society. I will now hand out mobile phones and you may call whomever you wish, you have one call and five minutes only.’
There was a rush to snatch the phones form him and silence as people feverishly tapped in the numbers they wanted. And then a babble of voices as connections were made and information relayed. Mrs Mum was weeping at the end of her five minutes and claiming it wasn’t fair, and two other people claimed their human rights were being violated.
All this was ignored and a large cardboard packing case was dragged into the room. The bailiff ripped off the top and started handing out blue boiler suits and white cotton underwear to everyone. Then, one at a time, a police officer escorted one detainee into the bathroom for a shower and a change of clothes. Personal belongings and clothing was confiscated, placed into the plastic bags the boiler-suits came in, and stashed away in the same packing case. Airline-style hot food trays were handed around the table, and the nine, now already showing signs of resignation, ate in near silence.
At the end of the meal, they were shown into the dormitory which was where they would all sleep on narrow lumpy mattresses, the bailiff took his leave, and the police officers, the outer door slammed behind them and locked and the prisoners were there, and it was the end of day one.
Day two dawned brighter and earlier than most of them would have liked.
Roxx was the second one out of bed, the Druggie being the first – she’d been up most of the night in fact and was hunched by the window scratching agitatedly at herself when he came into the sitting room.
One by one they drifted out of their beds and came to sit around the table. One of the men, heavily tattooed and pierced, sat across the table from Mrs Mum who had already been weeping because she wanted to get out, wanted to be with her children, no one knew how she felt, a mother separated from her own flesh and blood and corralled here with a bunch of crazy people and lawless criminals. She started to weep again. The tattooed/pierced guy laughed. He looked around the room, but everyone avoided catching his eye. He rapped on the table and laughed loudly, frightening Mrs Mum into a fresh outburst of sobbing, and having achieved this, he linked his hands behind his head and leaned back in the seat to enjoy the spectacle of her misery.
The Druggie was shivering next to Roxx. Roxx, not able to do anything else for her, patted her on the knee. The two of them perched on the window sill and Roxx surveyed the room.
In the doorway, Secretary Man was jogging on the spot and flapping his arms up and down. Roxx shook his head impatiently. It hadn’t been more than 15 hours and the guy already was worrying he was getting flabby.
A bleary-eyed young man wandered in from the dormitory, squeezing past the panting Secretary Man.
‘What do we do about food?’ He asked. Everyone looked at him blankly. He looked round at them. ‘well, hello, there’s no kitchen, in case no one had noticed, so I’m assuming there’s no maid service, no chef, no restaurant, so how are we getting our meals for the next four weeks?’
There was an immediate rise in the tension, and they were all looking at each other. The kid was right.
There was the dormitory. And this room they were in now. And then there was the bathroom.
There were three other doors on one wall. Roxx strolled across and tried the first door. It was locked. He tried the next. Also locked.
‘Hmm.’ He said to himself. Over his shoulder he could see everyone – seated and standing – was watching him. Unaccountably he felt a trickle of fear at the back of his boiler-suit collar. Reminding himself for future reference that red means stop, the thrill is just not worth the sentence, he tried a cocky grin at his audience.
‘Well, one of these had got to open. Hughie, I choose door number three.’ He quipped, going into a kind of exaggerated mime of someone preparing to open a door. It was odd they were all so tense, just watching him. he felt the handle of the door beneath his fingers. It was cold and the cold seemed to travel along his spine. He felt a pang of nausea. If no one had been watching him, he would have turned and gone back to his perch on the window sill. His heart beat fast, and he turned the handle, turning again to smile at the audience with his trade-mark grin, and saying, ‘here goes noth…’
But the phrase died on his lips.
At the threshold of the door was a little pile of rubble and ash. He tried to focus, tried to piece together the scene before him, through the door. It was something – else.
It was a street. Half of the buildings were gone, blackened ruins in heaps and piles and sagging roof timbers hanging down. It was like a movie set for a war film. There was a house nearby, just a few yards from the doorway. If Roxx took a step, or maybe two, if he put out a hand, he would be able to touch the brickwork.
He shook his head. His vision, never blurred, still showed him the same scene. He was aware that the people behind him were exclaiming, moving, rushing over, there were cries of disbelief and even fear, but Roxx couldn’t find anything to say. He looked into the room. He looked through the doorway and saw a whole new world, a world of destruction and chaos.
He took a step, and Mrs Mum screeched at him, clutching his arm.
‘Don’t! Don’t go in there!’
Confused he gaped at her. There were a couple of others, equally fearful, reaching out for him.
‘Shut the door. Shut it. Now. Quick. Shut the door.’
And the tattooed and pierced man was getting up from his chair, noisily chewing gum and nodding, delight all over his face.
‘Yeah! Man, I mean, wow! Yeah! Wow! People, like, I mean, wow!’
And he stepped right up to the doorway, elbowing a bewildered Roxx to one side, and then, glancing back over his shoulder, tattoo man laughed again.
‘This is a fucking amazing movie set! It’s wicked. Wicked or what? I’m asking you, people, like wow! Truly fucking, un-fucking-believable!’
And he stepped through the doorway and went into the rubble-strewn street, looking around, turning round as he went, looking at the scene around him.
‘Man! It’s fucking unbelievable! How the fuck did they do it? This is just like a real …’
And a chimney toppled from a roof and crushed him on the ground. His foot twitched and was still, no more of his body visible beneath the blackened brickwork.