In an overheated semi-basement, seven storeys beneath the Council Chamber, David awaits Sarah’s Audit Hearing. The windows are horizontal slits high up the walls and the overhead strip-lights are still on, although it’s before 11.00 am and bright sunshine outside. The room is barely wide enough to hold the dais with the wooden table for the Assessor, her Recorder and the clerk, with the chair for the witness to the right and the dock for the defaulter to the left. He feels stifled and wonders if he suffers from asthma.
He has found a seat at the back of the courtroom on an upright chair that grates when he moves. He shouldn’t be here. He crept in with the public through the main door, and was squeezed against a young man with inky fingers, a notebook, and furtive eyes. As soon as he sees the uniform the young man introduces himself as a TV reporter, but doesn’t give a channel. He slips his cuff back to show his wristband.
‘We pay for your stories. Do you think Franklin has the answer to lawlessness in the Old Town?’
David touches the insignia on his sleeve: ‘No comment.’
A group of young women and men in blue uniforms without badges fill the benches at the front of the room. David guesses they are cadets from the Academy. Not so long ago I was one of you, he thinks. A cadet whose hair seems unruly despite the regulation cut looks back at him and says something to the young woman next to him. She glances round and giggles.
The Assessor enters at the door behind the bench, a spare black woman in a navy blue trouser suit with the badge of office – the Golden Balance – on her breast pocket. Her clerk follows her. Everyone rises with a scraping of chairs and David is forced back against the main door.
The Assessor surveys the room through metal-rimmed spectacles, sighs, and sits down.
‘What have you got for us today?’
The clerk bows his head. He’s short, plump-faced and his hair needs combing. He reminds David of a pocket spaniel.
‘Long list, Madam. First case, Major Breach of the One Law. Conveying a cargo without contract. Intent to supply said cargo without payment.’
‘Bring the defaulter to scrutiny.’
David is forced to stand as the main door opens and the Court-Serjeant enters, a square-shouldered older man in a gold-braided uniform who scowls at the Bench, the Assessor and the audience. He leads Sarah into the courtroom. She glances round the room, as if noting the details for when she tells her friends the story.
The Serjeant grasps her arm and the clerk slaps his hand on the desk:
She nods to him, picks the officer’s fingers from her arm with her other hand and strolls forward.
‘Take her to the dock.’
‘Please. I’ll find my own way.’
The clerk snorts.
She takes her position to the left of the bench, the Serjeant behind her, and looks round. David feels she is searching him out. The journalist licks his biro and scribbles at his pad.
The Assessor leans towards her.
‘You are Ms S.Cordell, known as Sarah. You are called to scrutiny for a serious Audit transgression. I have reviewed the evidence and am minded to order full compensation with costs. Have you anything to say?’
Sarah frowns, and for an instant David feels dizzy, as if everything is back to front. She is the judge and he stands accused in the dock. Then her face lights up.
‘Not really. I was taking some fruit and other produce from Coneystone in the wagon with Juno. We wanted to share it with our cousins and friends in the Old Town. First time I’ve done the trip, we had a great crop this year. These people,’ she waves a hand towards David, ‘him and his mates, jumped out on me, all dressed up like comedy policemen. Pity it was muddy, they kept falling over. He’ll do it now if you’re lucky.’
Someone sniggers and the Assessor fixes her gaze on the cadets.
Sarah keeps talking.
‘It’s not funny. They scared Juno.’
‘That’s of no importance. The question is: have you a valid contract?’ The Assessor pauses a moment, then raises her voice. ‘You have no contract, it’s idle to deny it. Answer a simple question: who pays you for the apples?’
‘But it’s a good act, you really should see it. Then they frightened Juno and upset the applecart.’ Her face darkens. ‘So to speak. Then they took me here and kept me in and I’m worried about Juno. The apples will spoil. So will the blackberries.’ She turns to the court: ‘You haven’t seen where they’ve put Juno have you? Lovely beast, heavy horse, red ribbons in her mane. You wouldn’t miss her.’
The Assessor thrusts her face towards Sarah.
‘You will address the question. The longer you waste the court’s time, the more it will cost you.’
Sarah smooths her forehead with her hand.
‘Oh no, I’m sorry, didn’t I say? The apples and everything, they’re all presents. Brilliant harvest this year. You can have some.’
She looks round at all of them, smiling at her good fortune.
The Assessor straightens her back. She glances at the clerk, who nods.
‘Thank you. Transfer of commodity at zero price: major breach.’
‘I’m sorry? Would you like some apples? Don’t you want witnesses? Look, one of them’s over there.’
David colours and hunches down in his chair, but he can’t stop himself gazing at her. He feels as if everyone in the court is craning round to look at him.
The clerk slaps the desk again.
Sarah raises an eyebrow but says nothing. The Assessor sighs.
‘Breach of the One Law. Full confession. Witnesses are unnecessary.’
David feels the tension flow out of his shoulders.
Sarah shakes her head, her face comical. Her eyelid flutters. David can’t tell if she just winked at him.
‘The One Law directs that all transactions must be between willing buyer and willing seller at an agreed price. Law of the Market. You do not give people things that you could sell to them. There are no exceptions.’
‘But….’ Sarah stops, her mouth open.
‘Be quiet. You have incurred substantial expenses.’
She gestures to the clerk, who reads out staccato from a thin strip of paper:
‘Deployment twelve Enforcers, 1 captain, 1 sergeant, 1 half-sergeant for 4 hours: 300 credits; Item: deduction for value of training exercise: minus 110 credits.
Uniform cleaning: 10 credits.
Accommodation, item: basic cell by one night: 200 credits; item: stabling and incidentals: 4 credits
Security during accommodation: 50 credits
Incidentals: toothpaste, soap, towel etc: 5 credits.
Courtroom, third grade, by one hour, staffing and incidentals: 100 credits.
Compensation: inconvenience of arrest to the detainee, standard rate 2 credits an hour by 18 hours: minus 36 credits. Item: proceeds, sale of 1 horse: minus 17 credits. Item: proceeds sale of cart and contents: minus 32 credits.’
David keeps his eyes on Sarah. She raises her eyebrows again and shrugs her shoulders.
‘Total 474 credits.’
‘Thank you. Ms Cordell, your breach cost Market World 669 credits minus 110 credits value of training provided, 36 credits citizen compensation and 49 credits sale of confiscated items. Your civic recompense is set at 474 credits. Next case.’
Sarah stares at her.
‘You must be joking! What is a credit anyway?’
The Assessor blinks.
‘But what about Juno?’
The clerk remarks to no-one ‘Additional court time may be purchased at 1.4 credits a minute.’
The Court-Serjeant seizes Sarah by the arm and hustles her towards the door. David rises and pulls his chair out of the way. She catches his eye as she passes and looks back at him and grimaces. It strikes him to the heart. He grips the door and stops it from shutting. The next case, a market trader accused of short weight, in a shabby suit with the jacket too tight under his shoulders, is brought in.
A buzz of conversation rises from the cadets. The young man who stared back at David tilts his head towards the young woman next to him and whispers something that is terribly important to them both. He takes the young woman’s hand, ignoring the others. The Assessor glowers at them
‘Silence! Or I shall clear the court.’
The journalist flips to the next page, sucks at his pen and writes.
David slips round the door and pulls it shut behind him. He leans against it for a full half-minute, his eyes closed.
He knows that the staircase in front of him leads up to the main hall where fines are paid. He turns left and strides down the corridor towards the barracks block. Voices sound from the guard room and he dodges left again into a narrower corridor with raw concrete walls lit by unshaded light-bulbs, then up an iron spiral stair. He listens for foot-steps, then creeps across a metal landing as softly as if he were on a close surveillance exercise and it was Adam assessing him. He listens again, and passes through a side-door into the Process Room. He blinks in the daylight that streams in from tall windows overlooking City Square. His heart feels tight in his chest. He has never in his life done anything like this. He doesn’t know why he is doing it now. He is a fool.
The duty Enforcer sits at the metal desk with the band-reader on it and the empty metal chair opposite, examining her finger nails. She slips something into her mouth. David clenches his fist, relaxes it and lets the door slam shut. The sound echoes across the room. She jerks upright and glances towards him, and pulls her jacket straight.
He knows her, they did their basic training together. Six weeks of square-bashing with Curtis shouting at you.
‘Hi Jan. Your lucky day. I’m to take over.’
He didn’t plan that. Where did it come from?
‘Who says? I’m here ‘til 18.00 hours.’
She chews at something.
‘Curtis. Extra duty – for yesterday.’
‘I heard. Curtis doesn’t like you, does he?’
‘Yeah, well. It’s a long story, I think he was a bit scared of the horse. Guess he likes you.’
‘Sure he does.’ She studies his face. ‘Are you alright?’
‘Yeah, well. I’ll be OK.’
‘That bad, is it? You’ve got friends you know.’
She touches his hand.
‘All yours. I’m off.’
The side-door clicks to. David expels the air from his lungs and breathes in slowly to calm the throbbing in his head. He touches the band-reader in front of him. He’s used it a thousand times. You key in the amount, touch your wristband against the screen and it deducts or adds on the credits.
No citizen in Market World is ever without a wristband. It’s fastened to your wrist at the citizenship ceremony when you pass eighteen and goes with you to the grave. You get lessons on it in “Lifeskills” at school. It only works if the buyer assents to the deal and that is infallible. Willing seller, willing buyer. As the signs in the street say: ‘You’re not dressed without it’, ‘No pay, no get’ and ‘You are your account’.
He swallows and pushes the hair back off his forehead.
The door is thrown open and the Serjeant enters, still gripping Sarah by the arm. He marches her up to the desk and releases her. He reminds David of an elderly bullfrog.
‘All yours. Watch her. She tried to chat up my deputy in the Guard Room.’
‘I did not. I just said he had nice eyes for a comedian.’ She stares at David. ‘Nice to meet you again.’
She holds out her hand.
David reaches out, then lays his hand palm-down on the desk.
‘The defaulter will maintain discipline,’ barks the Serjeant. ‘Sit.’
Sarah looks round her, pulls out the chair, sits and crosses her legs.
David squares his shoulders.
‘Alright. I’ll take over from here.’
‘The court placed Ms Cordell in my charge.’
The Serjeant keeps his hand on Sarah’s shoulder.
‘Until her debt is discharged. Which is now.’
He looks the Serjeant in the eye. After a pause the officer drops his hand and pulls on a leather glove.
The door slams behind him. David licks his lips and looks at Sarah and tries to smile. He has the script by heart, he learned it last night.
‘You understand that you must pay civic recompense as decided by the court. 474 credits. Touch your wristband to the reader.’
‘Where’s Juno? I don’t care about the cart, but she’s not used to being away from me.’
‘Your possessions will be auctioned to defray expenses. Just touch your wristband here. See that number? That’s your account: “Debit 474”. But you must have a wristband. It’s always issued at the citizenship ceremony when you leave school. You could buy that cartload ten times over with that many credits. Twenty times.’
He taps the reader. She grins at him.
‘We don’t bother with those things in the villages, waste of time.’ She starts to get up. ‘Let’s go and find Juno. I need to get on my way.’
‘She’s OK, I sorted it. She’s being looked after.’
‘Are you sure? What do you know about horses?’
‘Tell me about Juno.’
She rests her chin on her fingertips and fixes her eyes on him. He places his hands together on the table.
‘She’s a black Percheron. 18 hands.’
She nods and her cheeks dimple.
‘She’s being fed OK?’
‘All the hay she wants – and crushed oats. And apples, but not too many. I tell you, she’s OK. Trust me. Now touch your wristband to the reader.’
She’s puzzled. Her brow furrows in tiny creases.
‘What wristband? I told you we don’t go in for them. My sister’ll plait you one out of wool. She’s only nine.’
‘You really don’t understand do you? You are in Market World. You pay for everything, you have to. You’ve taken up the time of the court and the resources of the Enforcers. No-one is going to lock you up for free.’
She giggles and the tiny dints dimple her cheeks. She places her hand over her mouth.
‘Sorry, but you just said…’
‘I know. Everything is for sale here, you get nothing without paying for it. The One Law – law of the market. It’s what give s us a well-ordered society, why we’re so much better off than you are in the villages.’
‘Sort of “All for One and One for All?” Free for All?’
‘Sort of – but it works. Don’t you see it?’
He craves for her to understand, to see how his world is better, to want to be part of it. That’s why he’s here. For her. He will be her guide, her mentor, her friend and she will trust him.
She shakes her head.
‘You really shouldn’t take these things so seriously. It doesn’t make you happy, does it?’
There’s a sharpness in her glance, as if it’s in her mind to say something else, but she continues: ‘Anyway, I don’t have a wristband.’
He shows her the numbers on the screen set into the black band on his left wrist. ‘There. See – all my credits: eight thousand seven hundred and fifty two, until I get paid. It’s all connected up to central computing – they keep the records. It’s how we do things.’
He feels a flush of pleasure at teaching her. She’s so confident and, at the same time, so wrong, so much in need of help and he can give it. His left leg trembles against the desk. He wills it to be calm.
She folds her arms.
‘Yeah, I heard stories about that. But I told you, we don’t bother with that kind of stuff – it’s no fun.’
‘Listen. In the past was the Great Hunger. Didn’t they tell you about it in school? Everything was terrible, people fought for food, children starved and warlords ruled the land. So many died they could no longer bury the dead.’
She shivers. ‘Sounds nasty.’
He finds it hard to concentrate.
‘Look out of that window.’ He points over City Square. ‘Can’t you see? Everyone going about their business. The shops, full of food and clothes and everything you need. The residence blocks where everybody lives.’
The words come more easily as he remembers the lesson. She mutters something to herself.
‘Don’t look as if they’re having much fun.’
‘Clinics where you can buy medicine, schools and training colleges where you can pay for a degree, markets where citizens buy and sell at a fair price. Above them, the towers of the Entrepreneurs. And everywhere the Enforcers watching over us all, trusted by everyone, making sure we follow the rules.’
She peers out through the window.
‘They’re not happy. No-one’s smiling, nobody stops for a chat. Why aren’t there children playing? Or animals? And their clothes are so drab. Don’t you like to see trees?’ She spreads out her arms. ‘They’re so lovely this time of year.’
‘Everyone’s busy, they’re going about their business. That’s what you do in Market World. Children are in school or training or working. No time to waste. We keep the beasts in their sheds and the trees in the park. What’s the profit in bright clothes?’
He watches her as if, at that moment, she matters more than anything to him. The thought comes to him: I am an Enforcer. She will understand, without the Enforcers there is no market, no Market World. I am worthy of respect.
She needs to see Market World as it is, but he can’t let her go out there. She’ll be as lost as he would be in the forest. How desolate it would be, to be alone on those streets with no wristband and the night coming on.
‘When did you last eat?’
He has her full attention.
‘I don’t know.’ She pauses and tiny creases appear between her eyebrows. Her face clears. ‘I had some dried fish on the way. They wouldn’t give me breakfast back there, they kept saying didn’t I know “No pay, no get”. They didn’t like it when I asked if that was the chorus and could I sing along? I keep telling you, you people have no sense of humour.’
David stands and at the same time flips his left hand forward onto the reader without looking down, hears the click as it makes contact and checks the screen. “Account cleared”. She doesn’t notice. He’s in command for once like he’s in a novel.
‘Come on. We’ll find a café. You need someone to show you what Market World’s really like. And I’ll tell you my dream – why I’m an Enforcer.’
Her eyes light up and she rubs her hands together.
‘And I’ll tell you about how we live in the villages. And we’ll find Juno, won’t we?’
She trusts him. He knows that she trusts him.
He leads the way, through the lobby and the double doors, and down the flight of steps from the Halls of Justice into City Square. Happiness bubbles within him. She laughs, mouth open, the dimples in her cheeks each side of it. He remembers he’s on extra duty. He’ll deal with that later.