Rumpole and the Angel of Death

RUMPOLE AND
THE ANGEL OF DEATH

John Mortimer

CHIVERS

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data available

This eBook published by AudioGO Ltd, Bath, 2012.

Published by arrangement with the Author

Epub ISBN 9781471302329

Copyright © Advanpress Ltd, 1995

The Author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

All rights reserved

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental

Jacket illustration © iStockphoto.com

For Stephen Tumin

'So shines a good deed in a naughty world'

Contents

Rumpole and the Model Prisoner

Rumpole and the Way through the Woods

Hilda's Story

Rumpole and the Little Boy Lost

Rumpole and the Rights of Man

Rumpole and the Angel of Death

Rumpole and the Model Prisoner

Quintus Blake, O.B.E. and the staff cordially invite

Horace Rumpole Esq.

to a performance of
A Midsummer Night's Dream
by

William Shakespeare 15th September at 7 p.m. sharp.

Entry by invitation only. Proof of identity will be required.

RSVP

The Governor's Office Worsfield Prison Worsfield, Berks

I had been to Worsfield gaol regularly over the years and never without breathing a sigh of relief, and gulping in all the fresh air available, after the last screw had turned the last lock and released me from custody. I never thought of going there to explore the magical charm of a wood near Athens.

‘Hilda,' I said, taking a swig of rapidly cooling coffee and lining myself up for a quick dash to the Underground, ‘can you prove your identity?'

‘Is that meant to be funny, Rumpole?' Hilda was deep in the
Daily Telegraph
and unamused.

‘I mean, if you can satisfy the authorities you're really She – I mean (here I corrected myself hastily) that you're my wife, I'll try for another ticket and we can go to the theatre together.'

‘What's come over you, Rumpole? We haven't been to the theatre together for three years – or whenever Claude last dragged you to the opera.'

‘Then it's about time,' I said, ‘we went to the
Dream.'

‘Which dream?'

‘The
Midsummer Night's
one.'

‘Where is it?' Hilda seemed prepared to put her toe in the water. ‘The Royal Shakespeare?'

‘Not exactly. It's in Her Majesty's Prison, Worsfield. Fifteenth September. Seven p.m. sharp.'

‘You mean you want to take me to Shakespeare done by criminals?'

‘Done, but not done in, I hope.'

‘Anyway' – She Who Must Be Obeyed found a cast-iron alibi – ‘that's my evening at the bridge school with Marigold Featherstone.'

Hilda, I thought, like most of the non-criminal classes, likes to think that those sentenced simply disappear off the face of the earth. Very few of us wonder about their wasted lives, or worry about the slums in which they are confined, or, indeed, remember them at all.

‘You'll have to go on your own, Rumpole,' she said. ‘I'm sure you'll have lots of friends there, and they'll all be delighted to see you.'

‘Plenty of your mates in here, eh, Mr Rumpole? They'll all be glad to see you, I don't doubt.' I thought it remarkable that both She Who Must Be Obeyed and the screw who was slowly and carefully going over my body with some form of metal detector should have the same heavy-handed and not particularly diverting sense of humour.

‘I have come for William Shakespeare,' I said with all the dignity I could muster. ‘I don't believe he's an inmate here. Nor have I ever been called upon to defend him.'

Worsfield gaol was built in the 1850s for far fewer than the number of prisoners it now contains. What the Victorian forces of law and order required was a granite-faced castle of despair whose outer appearance was thought likely to deter the passers-by from any thoughts of evil-doing. Inside, five large cellular blocks formed the prison for men, with a smaller block set aside for the few women prisoners. In its early days all within was secrecy and silence, with prisoners, forbidden to speak to each other, plodding round the exercise yard and the treadmill – the cat o' nine tails and the rope for ever lurking in the shadows. When it was built it was on the outskirts of a small industrial town, a place to be pointed out as a warning to shuddering children being brought back home late on winter evenings from school. Now the town has spread over the green fields of the countryside and the prison is almost part of the city centre. This, I thought, as my taxi passed it on the way from the station, looked in itself, with its concrete office blocks, grim shopping malls and multi-storey car parks, as if it were built like the headquarters of a secret police force or a group of houses of correction.

Inside the prison there were some attempts at cheerfulness. Walls were painted lime green and buttercup yellow. There was a dusty rubber plant, and posters for seaside holidays, in the office by the gate where I filled in a visitor's form and did my best to establish my identity. But the scented disinfectant was fighting a losing battle with the prevailing smell of stale air, unemptied chamber-pots and greasy cooking.

The screw who escorted me down the blindingly lit passages, with his keys jangling at his hip, told me he'd been a school teacher but became a prison warder for the sake of more pay and free membership of the local golf club. He was a tall, ginger-haired man, running to fat, with that prison pallor which can best be described as halfway between sliced bread and underdone potato chips. On one of his pale cheeks I noticed a recent scar.

The ex-teacher led me across a yard, a dark concrete area lined with borders of black earth in which a few meagre plants didn't seem to be doing well. A small crowd of visitors from the outer world – youngish people whom I took to be social workers and probation officers with their partners, grey-haired governors of other prisons with their wives, enlightened magistrates and a well-known professor of criminology – was waiting. Their voices were muted, serious and respectful, as though, instead of having been invited to a comedy, they were expecting a cremation. They stood in front of the chapel, a gaunt Gothic building no doubt intended to put us all in mind of the terrible severity of the Last Judgement. There, convicted murderers had prayed while their few days of life ticked away towards the last breakfast. ‘Puts the wretch that lies in woe / In remembrance of the shroud' – I remembered the lines at the end of the play we were about to see. Then the locked doors of the chapel opened and we were shepherded in to the entertainment.

‘I have a device to make all well. Write me a prologue; and let the prologue seem to say, we will do no harm with our swords, and that Pyramus is not kill'd indeed; and for the more better assurance, tell them that I Pyramus, am not Pyramus but Bottom the weaver. This will put them out of fear!' The odd thing was – I had discovered by a glance at my programme before the chapel lights dimmed and the cold, marble-paved area in front of the altar was bathed in sunlight and became an enchanted forest – the prisoner playing Nick Bottom was called Bob Weaver. What he was in for I had no idea, but this weaver seemed to be less of a natural actor than a natural Bottom. There was no hint of an actor playing a part. The simple pomposity, the huge self-satisfaction, and the like-ability of the man were entirely real. When the audience laughed, and they laughed a good deal, the prisoner didn't seem pleased, as an actor would be, but as hurt, puzzled and resentful as bully Bottom mocked. And, when he came to the play scene, he acted Pyramus with intense seriousness which, of course, made it funnier than ever.

We were a segregated audience, divided by the aisle. On one side, like friends of the groom, sat the inmates in grey prison clothes and striped shirts – and trainers (which I used to call sand-shoes when I was a boy) were apparently allowed. On the other side, the friends of the bride were the great and the good, the professional carers and concerned operators of a curious and notoriously unsuccessful system. Of the two sides, it was the friends of the groom who coughed and fidgeted less, laughed more loudly and seemed more deeply involved in the magic that unfolded before them:

‘But we are spirits of another sort.

I with the morning's love have oft made sport,

And like a forester the groves may tread

Even till the eastern gate, all fiery red,

Opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams

Turns into yellow gold his salt green streams.'

I hadn't realized how handsome Tony Timson would look without his glasses. His association, however peripheral, with an armed robbery (not the sort of thing the Timson family had any experience of, nor indeed talent for) had led him to be ruler of a fairy kingdom. Puck, small, energetic and Irish, I remembered from a far more serious case as a junior member of the clan Molloy. All too soon, for me anyway, he was alone on the stage, smiling a farewell:

‘If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended:

That you have but slumbered here,

While these visions did appear. . .'

Then the house lights went up and I remembered that all the lovers, fairies and Rude Mechanicals (with the exception of the actresses) were robbers, housebreakers, manslaughterers and murderers, there because of their crimes and somebody's – perhaps my – unsuccessful defence.

‘I think you'll all agree that that was a pretty good effort.' The Governor was on the stage, a man with a ramrod back, cropped grey hair and pink cheeks, who spoke like some commanding officer congratulating his men after a particularly dangerous foray into enemy territory. ‘We owe a great deal to those splendid performers and all those who helped with the costumes. I suggest we might give a hand to our director who is mainly responsible for getting these awkward fellows acting.' A small, middle-aged man with steel-rimmed spectacles rose up from the front row of the inmates and lifted a hand to acknowledge the applause. This the Governor silenced with a brisk mutter of words of command. ‘Now will all those of you who live in, please go out. And those of you who live out, please stay in. You'll be escorted to the boardroom for drinks and light refreshments.'

The screws who had been waiting, stationed round the walls like sentries, reclaimed their charges. I saw the director who had been applauded walking towards them with his knees slightly bent, moving with a curious hopping motion, as though he were a puppet on a string. I hadn't seen his face clearly but something in the way he moved seemed familiar, although I couldn't remember where I'd met him before, or what crime he might, or might not, have committed.

‘Never went much for Shakespeare when I was at school,' Quintus Blake, the Governor, told me. He was holding a flabby sausage-roll in one hand and, in the other, a glass of warmish white wine which, for sheer undrinkability, had Pommeroy's house blanc beaten by a short head. ‘Thought the chap was a bit long-winded and couldn't make his meaning clear at times. But, by God, doesn't he come into his own in the prison service?'

‘You mean, you use him as a form of punishment?'

‘That's what I'd've thought when I was at school. That's what I'll tell Ken Fry if he complains we're giving the chaps too good a time. If they misbehave, I'll tell him we put them on Shakespeare for twenty-eight days.' Ken Fry is our new, abrasive, young Home Secretary who lives for the delighted cheers of the hangers and floggers at party conferences. Given time, he'll reintroduce the rack as a useful adjunct to police questioning.

‘The truth of the matter' – Quintus bit bravely into the tepid flannel of his sausage-roll – ‘is that none of the fellows on Shakespeare duty have committed a single offence since rehearsals began.'

‘Is that really true?'

‘Well, with one exception.' He took a swig at the alleged Entre Deux Mers, decided that one was enough and put his glass down on the boardroom table. ‘Ken Fry says prison is such a brilliant idea because no one commits crimes here. Well, of course, they do. They bully each other and get up to sexual shenanigans which put me in mind of the spot behind the fives court at Coldsands. I don't know what it is about prison that always reminds me of my school-days. Anyway, as soon as they landed parts in the
Dream,
they were as good as gold, nearly all of them. And for that I've got to hand it to Gribble.'

‘Gribble?'

‘Matthew Gribble. Inmate in charge of Shakespeare. Just about due for release as he's got all the remission possible.'

‘He produced the play?'

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