My first week at Legal Aid, someone from Head Office hanged herself. Laura said she was found by a friend, another defender of the poor, 'cos her little dog went off and wouldn't stop barking. And there she was, hanging in the bathroom. Naked.
Laura said her friend went all Taxi Driver, shaved his head, turned up at work like that. No one knew what to say. I thought - is this it? I'd come seeking a new adventure. Instead I attend another's end.
My boss is kind; he doesn't throw me in. I trot along after the lawyers and watch. It's not that I don't know courts; I just resolved a class action, Supreme Court, in my other job. Tales of cults and child abuse. A good result, but I'd had it. Defending drug addicts, local court, sounded like a holiday camp.
But here is another world. People swarm the hallways, and not the type in suits. The foyer smells like human refuse. And on a plastic waiting room chair, a man slumped, eyes closed, starts to retch. The stink. Rose, court clerk, takes charge, "Move him, clean him up!" I watch, frozen. Rose looks at me, says, "Is he one of yours?" I shake my head, but just don't know. My boss appears. I breathe out.
"Show's over, need some help here." It's Laura, reeking smoke, red hair dishevelled. "I can't do 'em all. Take the one in the cells." She shoves a manila folder in my hands.
It's dark below. The cops at the front desk frown when I say I'm the new girl, but they let me down. A mountain of a man, shirtless, brown skin gleaming with sweat. He's singing to himself. When I say I'm here to help, he glows with a child's smile. He thinks I'm an angel. His address is 77 Heaven Street, Diamond and Pearls. He laughs. I don't know what to do.
In the court room, I ask the magistrate for a mental health assessment. He sits in the dock with an absent smile, softly humming. But when they come to take him away, he wakes, a wild cornered beast, lashing at the officers. Howling. We can still hear him through the walls, as the next person is called.
I step off the train at Kings Cross to a shifting tableaux. A man stands motionless, straight and tall, beige suit, lion mane, expression void, clutching something to his heart. Up the escalator, a young man, hand outstretched, glint of silver tossed. An older woman, face lined and shawl pulled tight, cowers by the wall as a man bends his fist to her face. But I walk on. Outside, the flautist with wild eyes; I saw him playing this morning at the other end of the line.
A taxi screeches to the curb. A man with a shaved head steps out, small dog sheltered in his coat. The night chill slams my face; I gasp awake.
And so it begins.