Carolyn Court and the heavenly piece - A short story

THERE are many unanswered questions in this life: for example, what was the greatest thing before sliced bread? Are you lonesome tonight? Who let the dogs out? Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

THERE are many unanswered questions in this life: for example, what was the greatest thing before sliced bread? Are you lonesome tonight? Who let the dogs out? Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

But for Carolyn Court, advocate, sitting at home wearing a woolly hat and five layers of clothing, the principal question was this: if it’s late December, and it’s close to freezing outside, then why do the workmen insist on leaving the front door open?

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The previous night could now only be remembered as an uneasy blur of colour and noise. Carolyn had been the invited guest at the Edinburgh Solicitors’ Criminal Law Bar dinner, an annual combustible cocktail of booze and testosterone.

Clutching a furry hot water bottle with one hand and stirring soluble aspirin with the other, Carolyn mused on the folly of mixing the grape with the grain. And then it happened: the sound that she dreaded most of all that morning – the telephone…

“It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas!”

The irrepressible Roddie Nisbet, Advocate, tossed his horsehair wig onto the tea table of the Reading Room of the Advocates Library. He looked out of the window onto the snow-covered George IV Bridge.

“I love Edinburgh this time of year. It looks just like one of my old granny’s Christmas cards.”

Roddie’s festive cheer was not, however, reciprocated. Carolyn’s fragility was lurking dangerously near the surface now, like a bad-tempered crocodile.

“Snow. I hate snow. It’s just slush in waiting.”

“What’s the matter, CC? Ah, of course, last night – Criminal Lawyers’ Dinner. Let me guess – you were a guest, and the hooch was flowing free?”

“Roddie, please justify your existence on this earth and get me another coffee, would you?”

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Carolyn tried to smile but had the distinct feeling that the alcohol had blacked out most of her teeth.

Roddie was undaunted: “Oh, I do love those dinners. They’re full of criminal-law solicitors having fist-fights about clients that they poached from each other years ago. One year, I’m sure I saw a shotgun…”

Carolyn interrupted: “Coffee???!!!”

Roddie smiled and ambled his way to the communal coffee pot and back.

“Get that down you, girl!” Roddie proffered a hot, black coffee. Carolyn muttered a grateful thanks.

“But the real mystery is: what the blazes are you doing at work in the first place? Look at you – you look like an advert for an undertaker. You in court today?”

Carolyn explained the clear message from Jim Tamson, her clerk, earlier in the day: “…so if you would care to swim to the surface of your crapulence this morning, then get here for the consultation by 10.30…”

Carolyn’s instructing solicitor that morning was Johnny James Harrington. Johnny was a well-regarded criminal-law solicitor. In his late fifties, he was compact, dapper, with greying hair, a stylish Hispanic moustache and a tie so loud that it deafened passers-by. Johnny had a way with a jury – he took their pulse, held their hand, then snatched their verdict.

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He had arranged a meeting with Carolyn before the clients arrived, so that he could bring counsel up to speed on the case. In the small consultation room in the High Street, the central heating roared like a food blender inside Carolyn’s head. She started tactfully: “Now Johnny, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but usually the solicitor sends counsel a bundle of papers, and then I go through it, and then I can properly advise whoever it is that needs my help.”

He waved her away contemptuously: “Don’t worry about all that. I’ve got the paperwork here – all the work’s been done.”

Carolyn looked at the papers – all neatly arranged in different coloured folders, bound and indexed.

“I don’t understand, Johnny, what is it that you want me to do?”

Johnny leaned forward: “Right, the first thing that you have to understand is that the client is a bad-tempered s.o.b. Second thing is, it’s not his fault. So listen up…”

Carolyn leaned back in her chair.

“The case is all prepared and ready for the court hearing. Now, you know that we don’t do a lot of civil business, but I knew this guy through my squash club. I took the case on at the start, and it ended up in the Court of Session. We had senior counsel on it and he’s done all the work and the notes and stuff – but I didn’t like the look of him, so I binned him…”

Carolyn said a silent prayer in thanks for the free-market economy.

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“… and you helped us out at short notice last month with that Asbo against the boy playing the electric bagpipes in the council house…”

Not a case, Carolyn mused, that would find its way into Session cases…

“…and that was a bloody disgrace, the boy getting done. It was just anti-Scottish racism…”

Carolyn’s intestines were now praying for Johnny to get to the point.

“Anyway – look – this is a great case – and it goes like this…”

Johnny now switched into hypnotic, persuasive, story-telling mode. Carolyn felt like a special member of the jury. It didn’t really matter what Johnny said now, Carolyn just wanted to blurt out “not proven!” and go home.

“So, there’s this clergyman, right? A minister of the Church of Scotland. Dog-collar and everything. Athletic young guy, fit, film star looks – good for religious TV shows. And he writes books about his ‘personal relationship’ with his God and all that guff.”

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Johnny took a book out of his attaché case and tossed it onto the table: To Know Him is to Praise Him.

“And he teaches all this stuff to the religious newbies at the New College in Edinburgh. And he runs soup kitchens and school camps and praise meetings and all that. And he’s happy and he’s clappy. And he runs the kind of church where you have to ask, ‘Hands down who’s for coffee’. You get the picture?”

Carolyn (very) carefully nodded her head and gulped down her coffee.

“So one night, he gets into his car. He’s driving along, minding his own business. Then BANG!” (Johnny smacked his hands together) “… this other car smashes right into him. And the other driver is, like, completely blotto, and 200 per cent to blame. Both cars a total write-off. So, anyway, they cut the minister out of the wreckage and it turns out that he’s in a coma. So, they get him to the hospital, and it’s all tears and snotters – and a “Will-He-Live-or-Will-He-Die”, Gray’s Anatomy kind of thing – and he’s in this coma for, like, a month and they’re talking about turning off the life-support machine and everything – and then, a miracle…”

“He wakes up?”

“No – he gets Legal Aid. Of course, he wakes up – who do you think we’re seeing this morning?”

“But Johnny, I have to see the medical reports and the witness list and…”

“Don’t waste your time with all that – all that’s been agreed. The insurance company on the other side have admitted all that…”

“So what am I doing here?”

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Johnny shifted in his seat. “Next week, we argue about the money. No witnesses, or anything. Just arguing in court about how much the other side need to cough up for the injuries. Right then, Carolyn Court – how much do you think this case is worth, eh? Go on, guess…”

Carolyn’s patience was wearing thin now: “Johnny – it’s not a game show. The client will be here soon…”

Johnny gave a figure. A seven-digit figure. Carolyn sat up: “Is the Minister in a wheelchair now?”

“No way – I played squash with him last week.”

As much as it pained her, Carolyn shook her head to indicate that she didn’t understand.

“Get this,” Johnny was in full flow now “the minister wakes up, and they’re all shouting ‘praise the Lawd’ and all that stuff. And a week later, one of the nurses finds him sitting up in bed, and he’s crying. He’s got this big, black Bible on his lap and the tears are just running down his face…”

“Some sort of post-traumatic reaction?”

“No, no. They asked him what was the matter and he said ‘It’s gone.’ He woke up out of that coma and he didn’t believe any more…”

“He didn’t believe? He didn’t believe what?”

“In God. He didn’t believe in God. Or the angels, or Jesus or whatever – the full chicken bhuna! It’s like Saint Paul – but in reverse gear. Now tell me – how much money is that worth?”

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Carolyn furrowed her brows and began to mull it over: “So the accident caused a fundamental change in his personality…”

“Put it this way, his next book could be called: ‘Bonk on the Head – God is Dead’…”

The first thing that struck Carolyn about The Reverend Doctor William Grierson (BD, Ph.D) was that he was – and she would not say this lightly – a total babe. Tall, permatanned and well dressed, he looked more Hollywood movie star than Church of Scotland minister.

Johnny made the introductions and they sat down. Carolyn was always nervous of supremely beautiful people and she found herself tongue-tied now.

The Reverend Doctor Grierson got to the point: “I’ll be honest with you. I liked the previous counsel and I have no idea why you’ve been chosen instead.”

Carolyn swallowed hard and looked over to Johnny. Johnny picked up the cue: “Listen Billy,” – Johnny must have been the only person who had ever called the Reverend Doctor “Billy” – “…the other advocate was okay, but what you need here is a proper street-fighter, and that’s why we’ve got Miss Court. You should see her in action – she’s a real animal!”

Carolyn forced a feeble smile.

“And where’s my wife? Where is she? She should be in here…”

Johnny shrugged at Carolyn: “She’s just outside. I wasn’t sure …”

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Carolyn said that it should be fine and that Johnny could fetch her in.

When Johnny left, Grierson leaned over to Carolyn: “You know, the guy who crashed into me was nearly three times over the alcohol limit. Three times over. And he escaped without a scratch.” He paused, then added: “I hope he burns in hell…”

Johnny brought in Grierson’s wife. Sarah Grierson was effortlessly beautiful and impeccably dressed. Carolyn now had the distinct feeling that she was trapped inside a Boden catalogue. And yet for all of Sarah Grierson’s intimidating beauty, Carolyn immediately detected a decent, gentle soul.

The Reverend Doctor Grierson hissed at his wife: “Where have you been? I’ve just been telling our hired bulldog here that I hope the other driver burns in hell. Which, of course, is supremely ironic since I no longer believe in the place.”

Sarah turned to Carolyn, embarrassed: “I’m sorry that you’ve had to put up with this, Miss Court…”

Grierson got up suddenly: “I need to use the facilities. Where’s the whatsit?”

Johnny led him out and Carolyn and Sarah Grierson sat in silence for a time. Then Carolyn felt moved to speak:

“It must be very difficult for you.”

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Sarah looked away, forcing a smile: “‘In sickness and in health’… I only regret that you didn’t know William before. He was the gentlest man I ever met. So tender. Before the accident, when times were hard, he used to take my hand and tell me … and promise me that everything was going to be all right. And now …”

Her voice trailed off.

“Now he won’t even touch me. He’s so full of bitterness and anger. It’s like living with a stranger. Sometimes he’s so filled with contempt for the Church or me or for anything spiritual that I look at him and I don’t recognise his face any more.”

Grierson burst back into the room, Johnny trailing behind.

“So, Miss Bulldog – has my lovely wife been regaling you with stories of my changed nature? ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ and all that. Didn’t an advocate write that? Did she also mention that I now suffer from convulsions and blackouts too?” He raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Yes, thank you, God, for that little bonus – oops, I forgot, you don’t actually exist! But don’t worry, it’s nearly Christmas, so we can all buy a big TV instead and watch all the children starving in Africa – in HD. But that’s all right, isn’t it, because they’re not Christians anyway…”

Maybe it was the weariness that comes with a hangover; maybe it was just the end of a long working week – but something in Carolyn snapped.

“Stop it!”

Everyone in the room sat frozen. At last, Grierson spoke, his voice as cold as ice: “I beg your pardon?”

“I said ‘Stop it.’ You have everyone here dancing around you as if you’re something special – well, let me tell you, you’re not. Thousands of people are injured every year, and they just get make the best of it. Stop wallowing in this self-indulgent garbage and look around you. You’ve got one of the best solicitors around, who – I should say – only took on your case out of pity, and now you’re ordering him around like a bellboy…”

Johnny shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“You have a wife here who still loves you and you treat her like dirt. Why? Because she still believes in God and you don’t. She still has an active church life and you don’t. Big deal! Boo hoo! You’re lucky to be alive, God or no God. No-one in this room is your slave, so keep a civil tongue in your head and we’ll see what we can do for you. But if you can’t keep your mouth shut, then I suggest that you start looking elsewhere for a legal team that will put up with this offensive, self-pitying crap …”

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Sarah Grierson and Johnny sat, wide-eyed and frozen. Grierson leaned across the table and stared at Carolyn for a long time, then he spoke:

“Johnny – I like her. Let’s unleash her on the other side…”

The following week, when the Day of Judgment came, the court hearing proved to be something of an anti-climax. Grierson and his wife pitched up at Parliament House in the morning with Johnny James Harrington. Grierson seemed muted that day and kept saying that he didn’t feel well. Carolyn, dressed in wig and gown, walked up and down the Great Hall and discussed a possible settlement with her opponent. Numbers were crunched, phone calls were made and – after a number of hours of what can only be described as “horse trading” – agreement was reached. As 4pm neared, the Court was convened and a Joint Minute was put before a very grumpy Lord Grimsay (Carolyn: “I’m grateful for m’lord’s patience.” Lord Grimsay: I’ve been stuck here all day. Who says I was being patient?”).

Grierson had complained of feeling unwell again and Johnny suggested that while Carolyn was getting changed, they should get some fresh air and wait for her outside the courts, at the entrance to St Giles’ Cathedral.

As Carolyn crunched over the snow towards them, she could sense that all was not well. Grierson stood with his arms folded, staring into space and Johnny and Sarah stood silently. Carolyn tried to lighten the mood:

“Well, it’s done. You won. At the end of the day, we got pretty much what we were asking for.”

Grierson’s face was turned upwards towards the dark, starlit December sky: “Odd things, stars, aren’t they?”

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Then he looked intently at Carolyn: “You see, some of these stars are already dead. Their light went out thousands – maybe millions – of years ago. But we just don’t know it yet. Their last light hasn’t reached us yet.”

And then he collapsed. Grierson fell backwards into the snow and his body began to convulse. His arms and legs lashed out for a few seconds, before coming to a sudden stop. And there he lay, in the middle of a perfect snow angel.

Johnny quickly knelt down: “We can’t leave him out here – he’ll freeze – help me get him inside.”

Carolyn and Sarah helped Johnny to carry Grierson into the cathedral. They found a small side chapel and propped him, sitting up, against one of the stone walls. Johnny whispered: “I’ll get my car and we’ll get him to hospital.”

Sarah held up her hand: “There’s no need. We’re used to this. He should come round in the next few minutes.”

And so they sat in the tiny side chapel of St Giles’ Cathedral and waited. And then, the great organ began to play. The noise was so sudden and so loud that Johnny gave a start: “Bloody hell, it’s like the phantom of the opera in here…”

Sarah was stroking Grierson’s hand. She listened to the music for a moment, then said: “This used to be one of William’s favourites. In Dulci Jubilo. He used to say that the words were written down by an old monk when he heard the angels singing it…”

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As Sarah was speaking, Grierson slowly opened his eyes. He registered the echoing organ music. “Blow me – am I dead?” He looked around him: “Well, there are two lawyers here – so I can’t be in heaven…”

And Sarah began to cry.

Grierson closed his eyes and pushed his head back against the stone wall. They sat there quietly until the music stopped. And when the sound of the great organ and its echoes had died away, Grierson opened his eyes again.


She didn’t answer.

“Sarah…darling…Sarah, look at me…”

She looked up in surprise at the tone of his voice. Her cheeks were shining wet with tears.

“Sarah, darling, I’m…sorry.” He took her hand tenderly. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry for everything. And I promise you that everything, everything is going to be alright…”

Later, in the Cumberland Bar, Carolyn and Johnny reviewed the events of the day.

“I’ll be honest,” Caroline mused “I haven’t thought this through yet. I mean, after what we saw in the church there, if Grierson were to get his faith back – then would he have to hand the money back?”

Johnny was dismissive: “What are you like? The guy goes through hell and you want him to give the money back? He deserves the cash, so leave him alone. He’ll probably just write a book about it: ‘The Prodigal Proddie’ or something like that. Just leave him be. For a guy that doesn’t believe in Christmas – you got him one big present today. Oh, and before I go, I have to give you this…”

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Johnny took an envelope out of his case and handed it to Carolyn. She opened it and found a Christmas card with a traditional nativity scene.

“It’s from the firm – I got a good deal on a thousand of these babies.”

The snow was falling heavily now on the street outside.

“Johnny, do you believe in Christmas?”

“Of course I do. I have to. I’ve got a four year-old grandson.”

“No, I mean like in the picture here on the card. Do you think it was real?”

Johnny studied the card: “What have we got here? Teenage pregnancy; underage mother; illegitimate baby; filthy living conditions; homelessness…

He handed the card back to Carolyn. “It looks real to me. Goodnight, Carolyn Court.”

Later, as Carolyn was walking home and admiring the Christmas trees in the windows, she became aware that someone was waving at her. Carolyn looked up. In a first-story window, a tiny girl, four years old and wearing an angel costume was waving cheerfully at passers-by. Carolyn stopped for a moment, smiled and waved back. Then, beneath the magnificent, shining, starlit sky Carolyn wiped the falling snow from her eyes and her lips and began the journey home. And, if you had been close enough to her, you just might have heard her murmuring softly to herself: “Christ the saviour is born, Christ the saviour is born…”