Here is my eighth short story.  Earlier ones (all on this website) have been: The Inspirational Speaker, The Goody-Goody, The Hon. Treasurer, The Expert, The Collector, The Letters, The Professor.  

This story is my attempt at writing a ‘Talking Heads’ story (with apologies to Alan Bennett, though I can’t imagine he will feel in the last bit threatened!).  I belong to a U3A group where we give each other feedback: a rigorous peer review process that always succeeds in getting me to make improvements.

I hope you enjoy the story.  

I’ve never been in prison before but here I am in Wandsworth, still getting used to being incarcerated.  Been here a week now and I’m very much hoping that they’ll transfer me to an open prison any day now.

I expect you are curious to know how I finished up in jail when I’ve always been such an upstanding citizen?

Well, unlikely though it might seem, it all started when I was a choir boy. I was only eleven and I found the sermons seriously, excruciatingly, boring. Anyway, to pass the time I used to sketch the people sitting in the  choir stalls opposite.  They were the Decani and we were the Cantoris.   I only slipped some Latin in to impress you.  After all, opportunities to impress people are in short supply aren’t they?  I find throwing in a bit of Latin every now and again often does the trick.  Not something corny that everyone knows like tempus fugit or carpe diem, but something more obscure like the Latin name for daisies, bellis perennis, or for forget-me-nots, myosotis.  Impressed, eh? Thought you would be.

Anyway, as I was saying, I was in Cantoris on the south side of the chancel, sitting immediately opposite the other half of the choir on the north side. A bit like the setup in the House of Commons except it wasn’t really a ‘them and us’ situation.  However, the Decani were sitting ducks, as it were, all in rows just asking to be drawn.  I’d have sketched the preacher droning on but the pulpit was on our side of the church so sketching him would have been an bit obvious.  I’d have had to crane my neck and even then I’d only have been be able to glimpse the back of his head. Mind you, he had big sticky-out ears so a sketch from behind would have been a laugh.

So, I used to sketch the grownups in the second row of Decani: the basses, tenors and altos.  They were real characters with wrinkles, moustaches, receding hair lines, specs − things that made them really interesting.  Mr James, the bass, was fat with a round face and double chin that wobbled when he sang.  Whereas Mr Butler, the tenor, was like a scarecrow with an Adam’s apple that bobbed up and down.  I drew them over and over again during weeks of boring sermons and the caricatures gradually became more unforgiving.  Fortunately, they never knew I was drawing them or, if they did, they didn’t let on.

I used to hide a piece of paper inside a copy of The English Hymnal, making sure I kept it below the height of the stall.  The only give away was when the boys sitting either side of me glanced at what I was doing and sniggered.  Fortunately this didn’t happen often because they’d be engrossed in reading something or other during the sermon.  No one seemed to listen to the preacher, not even the congregation so far as I could tell, and they were there voluntarily!  It always struck me as rather weird to choose to be perched on uncomfortable church pews when you could be outside enjoying yourself. Joining the choir was my parents’ idea.  They thought it would do me good but once my voice started to break, I was out of there fast.

At secondary school I did caricatures of all my teachers: the Latin teacher with his big domed forehead, the science teacher with his bulbous nose, the chinless maths teacher, the headmaster peering over  his half-glasses.  Even though it was so long ago, I can still visualise them all now and I could probably still get a good likeness just from memory.  I only came to grief once when the Latin teacher found a particularly unflattering drawing of him tucked inside an exercise book I handed in for marking. I’d forgotten it was there.  Anyway, he was livid and sent me, clutching the offending sketch, to the headmaster. I think the headmaster thought the sketch was rather good because I could see he was suppressing a smile.  He confiscated my sketch and gave me a week’s worth of one hour detentions during which I had to write the sentence, ‘I must not draw during Latin lessons’ over and over again.  A bit pointless really.

Anyway, that’s how it all began and I’ve been a clandestine sketcher of people ever since. The secret is to hide your sketch book inside a newspaper or a book, to look really hard at your victim while they are preoccupied with something else and to concentrate on memorising just a small bit of them: the shape of their head for example, or their nose, their eyes.  Then look down and commit that part to paper.  Then look up again and memorise the next bit, and so on. Up and down, up and down, like a pigeon pecking at bread crumbs. If they should happen to glance your way, stop dead and gaze around innocently, or put your head down and  pretend to read.  Oh, and wearing dark glasses helps put them off the scent.

It’s been fun seeing if I could complete a half-decent sketch without being spotted.  For years I worked in the visual aids department at the Civil Service Staff College producing endless transparencies for overhead projectors and, after they went out of fashion, for power points.  All tame stuff, not much scope for creativity, but at least it was a job. When the college closed, I was offered a redundancy package and off I went, liberated.  After a few months of loafing around not doing much, I started to sketch people again, getting a cheap thrill out of seeing if I could avoid detection.  A bit like being a voyeur!

I’ve taken some risks just for the hell of it. I found pubs were a good place to sketch.  You get some real characters in pubs, slowly getting sozzled.  It’s a bit tricky if they rumble what you’re up to, but so long as you stay sober, you can scarper before they get you.  I once tried sketching in the public gallery of the House of Commons just because I knew it wasn’t allowed.  Unfortunately I was soon spotted.  My sketchbook was confiscated and I was escorted out of the building by two policemen.

I also experimented with drawing nudists on Studland Beach.  Some wonderful wobbly shapes − a free life-drawing class!  I managed a couple of hours without being detected but eventually a big guy spotted me drawing his buxom  girlfriend and roared, ‘pervert!’  I ran for it. My fault really, I shouldn’t have spent so long drawing her tattoos.

Despite these setbacks, or more probably because of them, I got more and more hooked on seeing if I could get away with sketching  people in dodgy situations. I know it sounds daft, but it gave me an adrenalin rush: became something of an obsession.

My downfall came after reading an article about courtroom artists.  It explained how they aren’t allowed to do any sketching in the courtroom itself.   The artist has to memorise whoever they want to sketch, usually the defendant, and dash outside and do the drawing from memory in the corridor or the press room.  This intrigued me and I started to wonder whether I could do sketches in court without being apprehended.

I started by experimenting in the local magistrates’ court, but that was too easy: no one took any notice.   I think they assumed I was a reporter from the local rag.  So I decided to try the Old Bailey.  I booked a tour first so that I could suss the place out and check the security arrangements.  You have to go through the usual airport-type security and of course you can’t take in mobile phones or any large bags.  I worked out that if I had a very small sketch pad in my inside pocket it would probably get through and an ordinary biro would have to suffice.

They publish a list of the cases that are going to be heard each day and I chose a nice juicy murder case, a lorry driver accused of killing his wife.  Anyway, I got into the courtroom OK and sat in a corner of the public gallery.  It wasn’t too crowded  so I didn’t have anyone sitting particularly near me. I sketched the defendant, a big burly fellow with a furrowed brow and a crew-cut. Then I moved on to sketching members of the jury and a couple of witnesses too.

Then, well, I got too cocky and decided to sketch the judge with his wig and all his gear. He had a big beak of a nose and very bushy eyebrows.   I don’t know how he knew he was being drawn.  He must have sensed it somehow, telepathy maybe.  Anyway, he suddenly looked straight at me and halted the proceedings.  I was pounced on and frogmarched out of the court.  All very embarrassing,  I was caught red handed.  Subsequently I was charged with contempt of court and given a six month jail sentence.  Reminded me of being put into detention all those years ago.

So here I am in Wandsworth.  Mind you, it could be worse, a lot worse. Word has got around that I’m the artist who had the audacity to do a sneaky drawing of the Beak.  There are some tough characters in here but they’re lining up for me to do portraits for their girlfriends.  The tattoos, as ever, will be a challenge.


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