A special Christmas Eve story for readers of The Scotsman
Christmas time in the Advocates Reading Room. The tree was up and brightly decorated, the shortbread was on the plates, the coffee was steaming hot…
“Memory - all alone in the moonlight...”
Roddie Nisbet, Advocate, in full wig and gown, stood and regaled Carolyn Court with his rendition of the classic song from the musical “Cats”.
Carolyn scrunched up a paper napkin and threw it at him: “Sit down, Roddie, you’re curdling the milk with that racket.”
“Did you ever see ‘Cats’, CC?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“It features a number of scantily-clad women dressed in fake fur, howling at the moon. The first time I saw it, I thought that it was a documentary about Lothian Road on a Saturday night...”
“You’ve missed your vocation, Roddie, you should have been a failed comedian...”
Just as Roddie was screwing up his face as if to say “ouch”, they were joined by “Snowball” McInnes.
Since his late teens, Paul Arthur McInnes QC had jet black hair with a single splash of gloss-white at the left temple. The nickname “Snowball” had been hurled at him at school and had stuck. An amiable – if somewhat indolent – sort, he was known for accepting complicated cases, hiring bright young Junior Counsel to do all the grunt work, and then he would turn up with the client, turn on the charm, and take all the credit.
“Carolyn, I need a favour.”
“I want you to be the Junior in a case I’ve been landed with.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s something to do with a Children’s Panel...”
“A Children’s Hearing?”
Snowball shuffled uneasily: “Well whatever you experts call it. It’s six of one, isn’t it…”
Roddie piped up: “What’s a QC doing at a Children’s Hearing?”
Snowball shook his head: “What do you think? The parents have got money. There’s been some sort of misunderstanding, and their children have been taken into care. So, Carolyn, are you in?”
“Good. Just take the papers out of my pigeonhole and do me a quick note on things like, you know, the law etc. You know – bring me up to speed.”
It was obvious that he had no idea what a Children’s Hearing was, but Carolyn said nothing. Once Snowball had ambled out of the Reading Room, Carolyn pointed an accusing finger at Roddie:
“And you can stop smirking, Nisbet – I know what you’re thinking...”
“He hasn’t got a clue, has he? Snowball has not the first idea what a Children’s Hearing is...”
“Neither have you, you smug little git.”
“Nonsense – everybody knows what a Children’s Hearing is...”
“Go on, then, ‘Mr Commercial Court’...”
“Well, it’s when some poor kid is in bother, so they have a panel of lay people – not lawyers, you understand – to decide what’s going to happen to the kid.”
Carolyn was impressed. Roddie consistently gave the impression that he was only interested in the Law as it related to Making Money, but scratch the surface on other areas and he invariably knew his stuff.
“Ha!” gloated Roddie “that soon shut you up, didn’t it. Of course, it’s a very Scottish procedure. You take three people who are not lawyers and you get them to take legal decisions that affect the lives of other people. As if that’s going to work! It’s like trying to get three blind mice to land an aeroplane…”
“Roddie, you don’t know what you’re talking about...”
“Your vehement denial, Miss Court, suggests, in fact, that I do. That said, you know, Carolyn, when you read through the cases, the Panel seems to have an unerring knack of getting to the right decision. Would you like a biscuit?”
THE papers had been prepared meticulously by the expensive instructing solicitors, but the case wasn’t quite what Carolyn had been expecting. Earlier in her career, before becoming an Advocate, as a young solicitor, she had attended a number of Children’s Hearings.
These usually involved hapless parents with drug problems who couldn’t look after their children. But this morning, reading through the papers in the Law Room of the Advocates Library, this was a very different proposition...
“My full name is James Maxwell Duncan. I am 52. I am a Child Psychologist by training and am Professor of Psychology at the David Hume University, one of the new universities in Edinburgh. I have a particular interest and expertise in The Workings of Childhood Memory. My wife, Anna, is also a psychologist. We have identical twin daughters aged 4, Magda and Bem…”
Carolyn looked up from her papers and mused that the children’s names alone might justify their being taken into care. Dry, dry, dry thought Carolyn – until she reached the following passage:
“And so, we decided to plant false memories in one of our daughters, Bem. Childhood Memory has been my main research interest for decades, so it was an opportunity that was too good to pass up. Our daughters are perfect comparators. We have told Bem that she knew her grandfather, my father – ‘Pappy’. In fact, ‘Pappy’ died many years before Bem and her sister were born and so neither she nor her sister ever got to meet him. My wife and I faked some photographs so that it looks as if Bem and ‘Pappy’ are playing together. Of course, that never happened. But – because of what we have told her, and the photos etc. – she now has happy memories of ‘Pappy’. ‘Real’, fond memories. She talks about him as if she remembers him. Again, this is impossible. On the other hand, we have told our other daughter, Magda, the truth. Thus, no ‘memories’ for her...”
She may not have meant to, but Carolyn started shaking her head rapidly, not understanding the point of the whole thing. Amanda Inglis-Bell, sitting beside her, leant over: “Carolyn – something tells me that you may be in need of more coffee...”
IN the advocates reading room, Amanda stirred her coffee: “So - as I understand it – you’re saying that the parents planted a false memory into one of the twins. And that child now has fond memories of a grandfather whom she never actually met. While the other twin has been told the truth – that the grandfather is long dead. Is that it?”
“That seems to be the position.”
Amanda raised her eyes to the ceiling: “Well, they don’t exactly sound like Parent of the Year material, but - at the end of the day – is it going to be harmful for the deluded child?”
Carolyn bit thoughtfully into her Tunnock’s Tea Cake: “Amanda, that may be the million dollar question...”
LATE that night, walking down the playfair steps, Carolyn stopped at the iron railing and looked down onto Princes Street Gardens.
The Christmas Fair seemed ghostly now. The Big Wheel, the Carousel, The Santa Train – all eerily asleep. During the day, you would see happy and excited little faces; toddlers on the shoulders of dads; grandmothers and grandfathers holding wee ones by the hand.
But now it was dark. What would happen if one day you were to turn to these children and turn out the lights on those happy memories? “Do you know – none of that ever really happened”? Carolyn shivered at the thought: Without your memories, who are you? She pulled up her collar against the icy wind, and headed home towards Cumberland Street.
THE consultation with the parents proved to be loud and fraught.
“You cannot,” Professor Duncan was shouting now “you cannot seriously be telling me that three, three uneducated people can simply take our children away from us...”
Snowball McInnes tried to work his customary magic and pour oil on a troubled client: “Professor Duncan, it was the social workers who took your children away.
The nursery staff said that your daughters were crying hysterically and knocking lumps out of each other. Your daughter, Bem, was screaming ‘Pappy is real’ and Magda was howling ‘No he’s not.’”
The Professor snorted: “What a storm in a teacup. Two four- year-olds fighting, so they’re taken into care? Unbelievable. I’ve already spoken to my MSP about this…”
“Professor Duncan, we have to know what you’re going to say to the Children’s Panel. It will be the Panel who decide when…who decide if your children are coming back.”
Duncan closed his eyes. It was as if he was counting to ten. Finally, he said: “You purport to be the expert in this area of Law, Mr McInnes, so how do we get our children back?”
Snowball leaned forward in his chair: “Well, I’m afraid that the first thing you have to do, is to say that you’re sorry. You have to acknowledge that you’ve done wrong.”
Duncan pursed his lips, placed his hands and fingertips together, and then said calmly: “Mr McInnes, thank you so much for your expert view on the matter. You are fired. Please leave us.”
A shocked silence fell over the room.
Snowball smiled, but his eyes were dead: “Well – I’ll issue my bill immediately for any work already done.”
“I repeat. Please. Leave. Us.”
Snowball turned to the professor’s wife. “Good luck, Mrs Duncan.” And he left.
Duncan turned towards Carolyn.
“And I suppose that you are going to give me the same advice.”
“I’m going to give you the same, good advice.”
The Professor turned his head towards the window: “You’ll appreciate that if I really have to listen to the same narrow-minded gibberish, then I’d rather pay for one Advocate and not two. Go on, then, spit it out...”
‘A miscalculation, that’s all...” Professor Duncan was addressing the Children’s Panel as if it were a group of his first-year students, his voice dripping with impatience and condescension.
The Panel members looked somewhat nonplussed.
There were three Panel members. The Chair – an austere-looking lady in her 60s who gave off a whiff of incense, and was clearly on a personal Mission to Do Some Good.
On her right, a rather scruffy, restless, fidgety, man in his late 30s. On her left, a self-professed “Wee Wumman fae Glasgow”.
“Mr Fidgety” was the first to speak: “Sorry tae interrupt ye, Professor, but it wisnae really a ‘misunderstandin’ was it? Ah mean, you and yer wife here - yeez planned it. Am ah right or am a wrang?”
The Professor turned to Carolyn and whispered: “I’ve no idea what he’s talking about. Did he mention ‘a meringue’?”
Carolyn stepped in: “I think what Professor Duncan is trying to say is that he acknowledges that what he did was an error of judgment and that he’s sorry.”
But the Wee Wumman was having none of it: “Bit he’s no’ said he’s sorry. Whit he done tae that wee wean is a pure liberty!”
Duncan sighed with an affected weariness: “Of course I regret that my children were taken into care. Of course I regret that. That’s why I’m here, reliant on your good offices to effect their return.” He smiled. All teeth and no warmth, like a weary crocodile.
The Wee Wumman struck back: “You’ve still no’ said yer sorry, sir. Yer like a bank robber that only says that he’s sorry ‘cause he’s got caught...”
Duncan bristled: “As much as enjoy being compared to a criminal, madam...”
Mr Fidgety interrupted: “Whit you done tae they weans wiz criminal!”
The Professor exhaled: “Oh, in English, please…”
Carolyn tried to defuse the exchange: “As I understand it from Professor Duncan and his wife, they saw it as more akin to telling a child that Father Christmas exists when the child is very young and then, when the time is right, correcting that. Now, I think that we all have experience of that sort of thing, don’t we?”
This silenced the Panel for a moment, then the Wee Wumman piped up: “Fair enough, but I never told nane of ma weans that Santa was their grampa...”
This made the Professor even angrier: “Oh for goodness sake - let’s cut the hypocrisy here, shall we? We perpetuate this whole charade of Christmas every year and no-one makes a fuss about that! The Virgin Birth? Born in a stable? Three kings following some sort of star? Abject and arrant nonsense and superstition. Children are actively encouraged to cling to these, these fantasies – and those children are not taken away from their parents by the State! I’m sorry, but I must insist that you return them immediately!”
The Chair lady’s face flushed crimson with anger at his words, and this change in demeanour seemed to suck all of the air out of the room. Mrs Chair lady, straightened her scarf, appeared to compose herself, and then said: “I presume, Professor Duncan, that by ‘hypocrisy’ you are referring to the virgin birth and divinity of Our Lord, Jesus Christ?”
Duncan didn’t read the signals. He ploughed on: “Can I remind you, madam Chair, that we no longer live in the Dark Ages. If I wish to bring up my children as atheists, then that is my choice as their parent – whether you agree with that or not, madam.”
This seemed shut Mrs Chair up for the moment – but Mr Fidgety re-joined the battle: “You can believe what you want, sir. You can believe ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’ if ye like. But that’s no’ the point here, Doctor...”
“Whatever! The point is, that you were doin’ experiments on yer weans – and they need protected from that.”
Duncan shook his head: “It was not an experiment. It was an empirically-based assessment of...”
The Chair lady immediately cut off the legs of his argument: “Professor Duncan – call it what you like, but it was an experiment. On your own children. It was wrong, Professor Duncan, simply wrong! And if you can’t understand that, then the children need protected from you.”
Duncan stood up in a fury: “Of course – all this play acting – I should have guessed. All this talk of ‘Our Lord’ this and ‘Our Lord’ that” – this is just Galileo being hounded by the Vatican. That’s all it is.
“Well, let me tell you this – I will not be silenced by some crypto-religious agenda. I will not be judged by this Kangaroo Court. I will fight this all the way to the top if I have to – to the Supreme Court…”
“I think you’ll find that it stops in this country...’” corrected Mrs Chair.
“The powers of evil and ignorance shall not win – make no mistake!” And at that – Duncan stormed out of the room and slammed the door.
There was silence for a moment, then Mr Fidgety spoke: “Did he mention ‘Krypto’? Was that no’ the name of Superman’s dog?”
The children’s mother, Anna Duncan, had been silent throughout the storm. She now sat weeping silently. The Wee Wumman came around the table, placed a kindly hand on her shoulder and handed her a box of paper handkerchiefs.
“Are ye a’right, hen?” Mrs Duncan shook her head.
“Listen – we’re no’ the enemy here, Mrs Duncan. It’s our job to see that your wee girls are okay. I’ve seen their pictures. They’re beautiful. Your husband kept saying that it was the State that took them away – but it was actually the State that protected them here.
“They’re your babies, but ye cannae treat them like lab rats, okay?”
Mrs Duncan nodded.
“Now, dry your tears, dear, and we’ll see if we can get you a bit more contact, and we’ll try and make this right for everybody. When is it that you see them?”
“I see them on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It’s when the social work have the staff to supervise.”
Mrs Chair lady spoke: “The reports say that the girls are fine, sleeping and eating well – with no more fighting. And they seem to be bonding well with their foster carers.”
Mrs Duncan pushed the handkerchief against her eyes: “They do seem very well cared for. But something is happening to them. I can feel it. Do you know, I think that they are starting to forget me...”
LATER, In The Advocates Reading Room, Carolyn sat slumped on one of the leather easy chairs. Roddie came in and sat beside her. He didn’t say anything for a long time, then: “Bad day at the office, CC?”
“The Children’s Hearing was today, right?”
“And you came second?”
“Wait a minute – did you get the sack as well?”
“The kids are staying in care, then?”
Carolyn nodded and sat up: “There’s a review in three months.”
Roddie whistled: “Wow – but here’s the thing, er…” Roddie suppressed a smile, and then said: “No.” He made a motion, as if to zip his lips shut.
Carolyn gave a grudging smile: “No, Roddie, you don’t have to say ‘I told you so’.
And yes, despite its many flaws – and I won’t get into those – the Children’s Panel did come to the right decision.”
“So the panel worked out that it was the Professor who was deluded?”
“Well, let’s just say, there will be no Christmas cards from ‘Pappy’ this year.”
“Get your coat, CC – let’s get out of here. I am going to take you to the Christmas Market and we are going to drink a gallon of mulled wine. Tonight, we drink to forget. Look at that weather outside. Look at that rain! Now, where on earth did I leave my umbrella?”