Tuesday, 27 January 2009

A Glimpse of the Abyss: A Short Story

A former supermarket employee at Endhill, whose life was described by his solicitor as "a mess", stole food and other items from the supermarket, Deadwood magistrates heard. So ran the newspaper narrative, going on to mention that the accused, employed as the night manager, had been fined £80 and ordered to pay £20, in addition, for costs. It also mentioned, in passing, that he was in the process of getting divorced, had been living with a married lady, and had been threatened by her husband. All in all, the newspaper told a sordid little story, the tale of a middle-aged man who had spent 45 years of his life uselessly. But, after all, I reflected, it was the truth: the accused had lived a sordid sort of life.
How it came about that he was caught is related as follows. The general manager of the supermarket had seen the accused removing three carrier bags full of stolen merchandise from the stores, placing these under a blanket between the front and back seats of his car. The police report, which seemed to enjoy a somewhat melodramatic and stereotypic turn of phrase, noted that the accused "was seen to look round rather furtively" before placing the goods in the car. Whether the accused actually exhibited such an action of theatrical villainy is doubtful.
However, something in his manner aroused the suspicion of the general manager, who tells us that he hid around a wall to watch the actions of the suspect. Shortly, he decided that a crime had been committed, and asked the accused to produce a receipt for the goods. This being impossible, the accused was confronted with the question as to whether the goods were stolen. "Yes, I'm afraid so." was his lame reply.
"I realise I have been stupid." he told the police later, when they had been called up to the supermarket. "I don't even remember what I'd taken." his statement limped on, saying that he had picked up the icing sugar to begin with, "then one thing led to another."
"I have been very worried." he told the police. You may indeed have been worried, he was told by the police, yet that does not excuse theft. He was thereupon charged and arrested for theft.

Now he stands before me in the court, a pathetic little man. With not a spark of remorse, he just feels sorry for himself. Once, he had been in a good job, earning a decent wage as night manager. Now, of course, that is gone; he is unemployed, looking for a job, but with the added disadvantage of a criminal record. He must still try to pay off the high purchase on his car; without this, his chances of employment, already negligible, will become even more remote. He is getting divorced and will have to pay out maintenance for his wife. He has been living with a married lady and will, most probably, be cited if the husband decides to petition for a divorce; although, even now, the lady has kicked him out.
In the plea for his defence, it was stated that the accused, due to marital and extra-marital circumstances, was in a "highly emotional state". For some time, he had been living "under stress". This was his mitigating evidence. But if these were the circumstances which led to his downfall, it must be asked whether he is not, in some measure, responsible for such a situation. Wasn't he guilty of creating those very circumstances which he pleads in his defence?
"Court rise!" announced the usher, and we all arose as the magistrates filed back into the court room, after their deliberations. A quaint custom, I thought, this practice marking the entrance or exit of the magistrates. It seems to be purely decorative, serving no useful function, except it be, perhaps, to mark with deadly clarity that moment when the verdict is considered, and delivered. And that I have told you at the beginning: this verdict was guilty. But a verdict is a declaration, partaking of no deep comprehension. How may we understand this man?
A case of petty pilfering was attempted to be carried out with no forethought of penalty. Here, the only reason for keeping to the law was the supposition that the accused would not be caught, tried and convicted of the offense of theft. On being found out, he displayed no contrition at being caught stealing, but rather blames his stupidity, being careless enough to be caught.
Circumstances had weaved a tangled web around him, yet this same snare had been of his own doing. Before, it had been easy enough to break free from the web; he had acted without forethought, yet there had been no penalty, so that it had been easy to snap the strands again and again. But now he had over-reached himself, and entered the realm where the legal code coincides with the moral principle, and enforces it. This time, there had been the same perennial lack of foresight, that same disregard for the consequences of his actions. But now the law had captured him, and from this web was no escape, only a just retribution.
Why did he do it? Simply because he believed that he had nothing to fear, nothing to lose. And that is surely the reason for so much crime. If I am careful not to be caught, he reasoned, I may take these goods. Whatever the crime, the question never arises as to whether it would be wrong to steal, wrong to hurt others. Instead, we have today's criminal, a moral pragmatist: if I can get away with it, then it is right. And there, wretched man, the accused had sunk so deep into the abyss that he no longer felt the slightest moral compunction governing his acts.
In this case, I offer you just a glimpse of the abyss, no more. But it is enough. The accused was convicted. Yet it was not that he was a bad man. It was simply that he was not a good one.

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