The Write Stuff: Viral by Helen FitzGerald

WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation's best writers. This week, an extract from Helen FitzGerald's Viral

Helen FitzGerald
Helen FitzGerald

Ruth dealt with two breaches of curfew, a shoplifting and a dangerous driving as professionally as if she was the same person as yesterday. It was the domestic assault trial that caused her to slip. Almost half the cases in court nowadays were domestic, much more than that after a bad football result, or after a good one. The plague of violence against women in the country angered her at the best of times. There was no

political will to address the issue, and hence no resources, so much of Ruth’s time was spent listening to bullshit that made her want to scream – (Lawyer X: She gave as good as she got. Psychology Report X: His wife was going through menopause and was uninterested in sex) – and all she could do was send hungover men to prison to ruminate about the crazy bitches who’d put them there.

Silver Fox was defending. One of the fiscals who’d been gossiping in the corridor earlier that morning was relaying the case for the Crown. And the defendant, a forty-nine-year old from Saltcoats with a glass eye, was looking distinctly unremorseful in the seat before her. The man had allegedly ‘punched Sarah Marie Johnstone in the face, causing her to fall backwards into the refrigerator, and did repeatedly stamp on her right hand with his foot, and in so doing did break three of her fingers, all to her injury’.

She was finding it difficult to concentrate because of the defendant’s expression. He was staring at her with his working eye and there was no fear and no pleading in it. She’d scanned the reports as the fiscal read the complaint, and now knew this one-eyed monster had beaten the bejesus out of his wife on many occasions. Silver Fox was explaining that the man had been drinking since 3 p.m. on the day of the alleged offence and that his wife, sitting three rows behind him in the court, had also been drinking, and had written a letter stating that she had hit him first and that she did not want him to be charged, but wanted him to come home because she loved him and he was a good dad and he was her world and her everything.

‘And have you continued to drink since this latest incident in May?’ Ruth asked the defendant.

‘Hardly at all.’ His impertinent stare, the upward turn of his lips, and the raising of the brow above his gone-eye unnerved her, but nothing would prepare her for what he then said: ‘Just the occasional Jäger bomb.’

She couldn’t be sure, looking back, but at the time it seemed that everyone in the court got the joke. She heard coughs masking giggles. The only person who she felt did not react to the comment was Silver Fox, who tried to move onwards with: ‘My Lady, Mr Cowey has since been referred for alcohol counselling and . . .’

The defendant had turned around to face his wife because she was laughing, which pleased him to the extent that he also laughed.

‘This is funny, Mr Cowey?’ By the time he turned and faced Ruth again, the laugh had ceased but its trace remained.

‘And, Mrs Cowey, you think your husband, your “world your everything”, is funny?’

The wife turned red and shook her head.

‘I will not tolerate insolence in my court! Mr Cowey, you are a disrespectful, arrogant and dangerous man. You have shown your wife no respect, and you are showing me no respect. You’ve pled not guilty to this offence and I am remanding you in custody until the trial. I am also charging you with contempt of court for your behaviour here today.

Miss Williams, dates please?’

The clerk, Lorna Williams, tapped on her computer, arranging trial dates as requested.

The defendant’s wife, Mrs Cowey, was now texting someone, or posting something, not realising she was also in a great deal of trouble.

‘Miss Williams, will you take the phone from the defendant’s wife and give it to me please? Mrs Cowey, you obviously seek no respect and therefore you will probably never get it. You support the man who broke three of your fingers on this occasion, who gave you a black eye and a cracked rib in August last year, who hospitalised you in January 2012 because you were out with the girls and failed to answer your phone when he called to ask where all the onions rings had gone. I’m reading here that he cracked your rib while your eight-year-old son Robbie was in the bedroom next door and it was Robbie who phoned the ambulance? It’s because you alerted the police this time, Mrs Cowey, that we’re here today, but since then you have taken him back, you have changed your mind, your statement, your story. You have wasted my time, you’ve wasted the time, resources and a great deal of money of the criminal justice system as a whole, and now

you’re laughing because it’s funny. You’re laughing and you’ve – what . . . ?’

Ruth looked at Mrs Cowey’s phone, an Ri7, the newest and most expensive on the market. It astounded her that people on benefits still managed to get the latest gadgets.

‘You’ve updated your status on Facebook, OMG in court sheriff is magasluts ma! LMAO!’

Ruth wished she hadn’t read it out loud. Everyone was now shuffling and whispering.

‘Mrs Cowey, I’ll see you back here this afternoon because you, too, are charged with contempt of court. I only wish I could place you in the same cell as your beloved.’ Ruth was shaking with anger as a very nervous Miss Williams handed her a piece of paper with the trial dates written on it. The room was silent as Ruth read, nodded and handed the paper back, as the clerk read the particulars out loud, and as an officer escorted Mr Cowey towards the stairs leading to the cells. When the defendant got to the top step, he turned to his wife: ‘I love you, Vera. I f***ing love you.’

Mrs Cowey stood up in order to recite a sonnet of her own:

‘I f***ing love you, Eddie, I f***ing love you! And Robbie f***ing loves you. You’re a f***in’ amazing dad.’

Mr Cowey smiled at Mrs Cowey. They f***ing loved each other. He then tossed a hateful smirk at Ruth, as if to say: ‘You think I’m the piece of shit here? You think I’m the bad parent?’ Ruth could not contain herself as he disappeared into the bowels of the court. She may have stood up. She may have yelled. She may have directed her words to the offender, or to the fiscals and defence lawyers and clerks sitting at the layers of benches in front of her, or to Mrs Cowey and the dozen or so onlookers still sitting in the court. All she remembers now is the words she said/yelled/who knows. ‘I WILL NOT TOLERATE INSOLENCE IN MY F***ING COURT!’

Ruth stormed out, walked to her office, and slammed the door behind her. At her desk, she worked quickly, because she suspected the Lord President might call. First, she phoned DC Campbell, and wasn’t particularly surprised that he hadn’t bothered to trace Su’s email. Before he could finish explaining why he hadn’t had time to do so – and why he would probably never find or make the time – she hung up on him. She asked Anneto locate Silver Fox and summon him to her office. She packed her work laptop and her work mobile into her pannier bags.

In her work diary, she noted the entry codes to the court and to her office door, and the passwords to the remote information system for her laptop, in case stress deleted these hitherto embedded numbers from her memory, and then added the diary to the other items in her pannier. And then she took the call she’d hoped would not come, but had half expected. ‘Sheriff Oliphant, it’s the Right Honourable Lord Kelly for you.’ At least Anne wasn’t calling her Ruth, she thought to herself.

Thomas Dickson Kelly had been Lord President for three years. As head of the Judiciary in Scotland, he had the power to sack her. She’d met him once at a charity event, and had seen pictures of him many times in the press. He wore a grey toupee and was known in disrespectful circles (usually ones loosened by alcohol: pub, charity event, dinner party) as Tommy-Two-Wigs.

‘Lord President, hello.’

‘How are you, Ruth?’

She hadn’t expected the human touch from this famously dour man. ‘I’m fine. She’s still missing but I know she’s alive, which is the main thing.’

‘This must be difficult. I can’t imagine. You need to take some time off.’

The human touch hadn’t lasted long. ‘I said I’m fine.’

‘And I’m saying you’re taking time off. You can’t sit at the bench when people are reading about this in the papers. I expect it’ll be on Reporting Scotland tonight. We’ve had calls.’

‘So? I’ve done nothing.’

‘Two contempts and one F-word already, Ruth, and you’ve been at work – what – three hours?’

She wondered who’d been in touch with him about what happened in court. Had he asked the clerk, Miss Williams, to keep an eye perhaps? She hadn’t had time to reflect on her behaviour in court, but was doing so now. She was a speedy reflector, didn’t take more than a second or two usually. Yes, she’d been unprofessional and had lost control. It was best not to be defensive. ‘I believe the contempts were warranted, but if I lost composure, I apologise. I’m calm now.’

‘Then there’s the neglect charge years ago —’

‘There was no charge.’

‘Investigation, but it’s a catalogue, isn’t it? Too many elements.

Mainly it’s the video. You can’t hand out sentences when everyone’s judging you. It’s not up for discussion.’

‘Are you calling a tribunal?’

‘I’m just telling you to take some time off.’

Ruth still had her wig on. She rested her hand on it as if to absorb one final moment of power. ‘I understand. I’ll go home now.’ She hung up, slowly removed the wig, and threw it in the bin with the newspapers. A man called Xano had ruined her daughter’s life, and was now ruining hers. A ‘film director from the UK’ had destroyed everything she loved and had worked so hard to build. She needed to find this man, and was glad the Silver Fox was now knocking at her door because he was the only person she could trust to help her.

• Glasgow-based Helen FitzGerald is the bestselling author of Dead Lovely. She has worked as a criminal justice social worker for ten years. Viral is published by Faber & Faber, £12.99