Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Article excerpt

In my late twenties, it was not unusual for me to wake up in a police cell wearing a paper suit. Waking to glazed tiles and a high barred window, and not knowing how one got there, is a bad way to start the day. On this particular occasion, I opened my eyes and pieced together that the party in the nurses' home had gone on all night, that I had continued to drink, and that I had then gone to a football match. The last thing I remembered clearly was standing on the terrace drinking cider and vodka out of a vodka bottle. (My pals told me later that two St John Ambulance guys had carried me out of the ground on a stretcher.) At that time I was a trainee psychiatric nurse. Booze at the social club in the hospital grounds was cheap, and the nurses were a hard-drinking crowd. There were drinking parties in the nurses' home and we used to throw barbiturates and anti-depressants in the fruit punch.

The cell was light, airy and clean. It was an altogether pleasanter place to wake up in than my closet in the nurses' home. The other cell occupant was a chirpy young East End lad. 'Alright?' he said, when he saw that my eyes were open. He had been arrested for non-payment of fine, but didn't seem in the least put out. These things happened, was his attitude. And today was his wedding day. He was to be married at noon. 'Gary,' he said, offering his hand.

I told him how sorry I was. He was confident of making it to the register office in time, however. Shortly we would be taken to court, he said, and he doubted very much whether a magistrate would remand him in custody for non-payment of fine on his wedding day. Why didn't I come to his wedding? I looked like I needed a drink. He was right and I accepted his kind invitation.

An avuncular police sergeant brought us plastic cups of tea and our bagged clothes and told us to get ready. A little later he returned with the young bride-to-be. She passed a suit, white shirt and tie in through the sliding window in the cell door. Her pretty face was puckered with concern. She didn't seem in the least surprised to have found him in police custody. Nor was she cross. She seemed only anxious about the time. My cellmate introduced us and asked her if she would mind if I came to the wedding. …

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