The Round Hall

In a new short story, novelist John Boyne responds to Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as part of a continuing…

In a new short story, novelist John Boyneresponds to Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as part of a continuing series in association with Amnesty International to mark the 60th anniversary of the declaration

It's early when he arrives at the courthouse and the  doors are still locked. There's no press outside. That's a relief. He doesn't want to be one of those fat bastards, covering his eyes with a copy of that morning's Irish Times, being chased along the quays by photographers. He's nothing like them. He isn't fat, for  one thing. He's so skinny that the ma says she's jealous of him. I  don't know where you put it all, she tells him. The crisps and the cokes and the Galaxy bars. I only have to pass a sweet shop, she says.

Thank Christ the doors open and in he goes.

He sits and he waits.


'You're Francis Kelly, are you?'

He looks up to see a man of about sixty wearing a black cloak with a starched white collar, his arms full of files.

'Yes sir,' he says. 'Only I don't know why I'm -'

'I'm Mr Jones. I've been instructed on all the particulars. It's fairly cut and dry. You're pleading guilty?'

'I'm bleedin' innocent,' shouts Francis, jumping up so quickly that the barrister takes a step back in surprise.

'Yes but you're pleading guilty,' he says, stressing the "p". He speaks like someone who could name the fly-half for the Irish rugby team.

'No,' says Francis, shaking his head. 'I don't even know what this is about. I only got the letter on Friday and it told me to -'

'Stay here,' says the barrister, walking away. 'I'll be back shortly.'

Francis sits down again. It's cold in the Round Hall but a drop of sweat is working its way slowly down his arm. There was only one good shirt in the wardrobe this morning, the one he used to wear for school, so he'd put it on with the tie that the da left him in his will. If the ma had woken up and seen him leaving in it she would have looked at him. She'd probably have thought he  was up in court.

He holds his left hand out in front of him and then his  right and stares at them both. Am I going mad, he wonders, or is this one bigger than that one?

'What are you up for?'

There's a girl sitting next to him now. The state of her. An Adidas top and a big belly on her that she keeps one hand  on. He looks at it and looks at her and feels his face blush.
Pregnant girls always make him nervous. He's never done it himself. Not with someone else anyway.

'Nothing,' he says.

'You're not here for nothing,' she says. 'Or you wouldn't be here at all.'

'I'm waiting on someone,' he says, thinking this isn't a lie anyway, since he's waiting for the barrister to come back.

'Have you got a light?'

'There's no smoking in here, Mary,' says a stern voice  from the girl's left and he looks up and sees a big garda there, a  woman garda, her right hand linked to the girl's left by a  handcuff. 'And don't you know that smoking's no good for that baby of yours?'

'Banging me up for the next fifteen years won't do her much good either, will it?' asks the girl, looking like she wants to put the cigarette out in the garda's eye.

'What are you up for?' asks Francis.

'I beat up my boyfriend,' she says with a shrug. 'I hit him with a poker. They're saying it was attempted murder.'

'Jesus,' says Francis.

'I didn't do it,' she says calmly, as if they're in a play and that's her next line.

He shakes his head and takes his mobile out, looks at it, but doesn't turn it on. He knows there'll be a message from Ms Geraghty asking him where he is, why he isn't in by now, will he phone if there's a problem. And there'll be another from the ma saying that Ms Geraghty's been on the blower looking for him. He doesn't want to talk to either of them.

'Francis.' The barrister's back now with even more files. 'Come with me, will you?' He jumps up and follows him through a door. It's like a church in here, he thinks, looking around. All the pews in a row and an altar up ahead. People praying for forgiveness. He tries to listen as the barrister talks to the  judge but there's an awful lot of big words being used and none of them make sense. 'Sit down there,' says a garda, pushing him into a seat at the front. He thinks back to when he was an altar boy. He never knew when to stand, when to sit, when to kneel. It used to drive the priest mad. You're an awful creature, he'd tell him in  the sacristy afterwards, going mad even though no one ever  explained what he'd done wrong and why he was in trouble.

'The best we can hope for is a suspended sentence,' says Mr Jones, coming over and putting a hand on his shoulder. 'We can go for mitigating circumstances. You'll be on a good behaviour bond though and if you try to leave -'

'What?' cries Francis, his eyes opening wide. 'I don't even know -'

'Silence over there,' roars the judge, who's a hundred years old if he's a day.

'Apologies, your honour,' says the barrister in reply, standing up, then leaning down again. He's up and down like a jack-in-the-box, this lad. 'Are you going to be this difficult all the way through?' he asks.

'I'm not being difficult,' says Francis. 'But I got the letter, right, and I came here like I was told, only no one's told me -'

'Ah here,' says the barrister, breathing a great breeze of cheese and onion crisps in Francis's face before turning around and marching back up to the front.

Francis hasn't allowed himself to think about this  until now but he can't help it. Jail. Jesus, even the idea of it. God knows what they'd do to him in there. He saw a documentary about Mountjoy once on the telly, back when the da was alive, and there were four of them in a cell no bigger than his bedroom,  looking at the camera as if it had just insulted their mothers. They wore ratty gray jumpers and looked like they only shaved once every few weeks. You know what they get up to in there, don't you?
the da had asked him. Any port in a storm.

And then there was that book, the one he read for the  Junior Cert a few years back. Your man, Pip, running through the graveyard and the convict grabbing him and asking for his wittles.  He isn't like that. He hasn't done anything. He needs someone to listen to him.

'Right, we're done,' says the barrister, coming back now with a garda standing next to him. 'We couldn't get the suspended sentence in the end, I'm afraid. That's me three-nil down on the week.'

'Put out your hands, lad,' says the garda, taking a pair of handcuffs from his belt and locking them around Francis' wrists.

'But no one's even asked me anything yet,' says Francis  as he's pulled out of his seat and through the door. 'There's supposed to be a trial at least.' They're out in the Round Hall  again now. The pregnant girl's walking through the door into Court no.3. She's got some arse on her, he'll give her that.

'A trial?' asks the barrister, laughing. 'You've been  watching too much TV, son.'

Francis stares at him, his mouth hanging open, until he feels himself being yanked to his right and he has to pick up his feet as he's dragged through another set of doors and out onto a side street. A van is waiting there with the back doors closed.

'This isn't right,' he cries but that just makes the garda walk even quicker and the handcuffs cut into his wrists. The doors open and it's dark inside. He can make out a few men huddled together, staring out at him, their eyes like cats. They want their wittles. A minute later and he's inside with them, trying to jump up before the doors close again. 'You can't,' he shouts. 'You have  to listen to me.'

And there's one now. A photographer. Standing a few  feet away looking in at him as the doors close. He picks up his camera and puts it to his eyes but hesitates, thinks better of it,  and turns away.

'Help,' cries Francis as the doors slam and the van's  ignition turns on.

'Help,' he says more quietly, turning to the men now who stare at him as if they're deciding what the fairest way is to carve him up.


The van pulls out onto the quays. It's gone ten o'clock by now. The traffic is only shocking.