Saturday, 9 July 2011

A roof over one's head

Lovely, isn't it? It's the courthouse of Terracina, a small town on the Italian coast about 70 miles south of Rome. I first saw the building a few years ago, when I was sued for non-payment of an absurdly inflated bill by a structural engineer who ran his business from behind a pull-down shutter. I won that case, paying my lawyer slightly more than the original bill would have been; a Pyrrhic victory, but a victory nonetheless. I was back there again yesterday, dealing with a febrile but tenacious offshoot from the original sequoia-sized sin, committed more than ten years ago, of trying to put a roof on my house . This involved a small but necessary structural addition to the walls of the house, a narrow reinforced strip between wall and roof known as a cordolo that graces nine out of ten of the surrounding buildings. But things happened, as things will, and the top floor of the house was seized and sealed off - in the legal sense - before the new roof could be put on. For eight months we lived with rain, layers of flimsy plastic that lifted off in the slightest wind and almost suffocated a passing widow, a last-ditch attempt to transform 120 square metres of house into a terrace-cum-swimming pool (honestly!) before covering the house with temporary sheets of corrugated black material that, like so many temporary solutions in Italy, remain in place a decade later.

The original crime, that of constructing the cordolo, has long since been expunged by time. The second, that of violating the entirely virtual seals designed to keep the house roofless, should have met the same fate, but has been kept alive by the mendacity of a local policeman (vigile urbano), piqued that I didn't respond to his willingness to accept a bribe, who filed a report suggesting that the temporary roof was a much more recent addition and couldn't therefore benefit from the statute of limitations. So far, so clear? I thought not. The generous option would have been to spare you explanation, but the nature of the story requires a little confusion and the self-doubt and generalised sense of anxiety that confusion can produce. I should say that violating seals (and yes, I'm fully aware of the double entendre) is a penal offence in Italy, punishable by a spell in jail. Another source of anxiety.

We appealed against this report as soon as it was written, producing two witnesses to testify that the temporary covering had been added well before the date provided by the vigile urbano, who, incidentally, had already been found guilty of corruption in another context. Years passed. The rain continued to fall on an increasingly shabby would-be roof and, in places, the floor below. Heat continued to rise from the house all winter with an extravagance that doesn't bear thinking about. People were born and, alas, died. I was in England when I heard about the first hearing, in March this year. Not from my lawyer; that would be too much to expect from someone who's already earned at least twice what the original roof would have cost, to little effect. One of my two witnesses phoned me in a panic the evening before to say that she'd just received aletter telling her to appear in court and couldn't possibly go to Terracina the following day. I phoned the second witness, who'd not been notified at all. I phoned my lawyer, who said that I shouldn't worry and that the hearing would probably be rescheduled in any case. Was I needed? Apparently not. Which was a relief. 

The hearing, as predicted, was rescheduled, but not before the vigile urbano had admitted, on oath, that the date he'd provided had no basis in fact but was simply a presumption on his part. Without this presumption, no crime had been committed within the times recognised by the Italian legal system. I was, to borrow a term used constantly and with similar inaccuracy by Berlusconi, 'innocent'. Unfortunately this wasn't enough to avoid the second hearing yesterday. We arrived at nine o'clock. We left, almost seven hours later, at quarter to four. The inside of the building is as hostile as its exterior, concrete and more concrete; with temperatures in the low 30s, as they were yesterday, and no air conditioning outside the actual courtroom, it's no place to pass the best part of a day. We acquired squatters' rights to a row of four chairs just outside the courtroom, taking it in turns to press our nose against the glass that allowed us to watch, but not hear, the proceedings. We only realised later that we could have gone in and followed each hearing live; we'd assumed, in our ingenuous privacy-respecting way, that the people drifting in and out of the place were connected to the trial, rather than people like me, who were simply obliged to be in the building and within earshot of an eventual summons. And lawyers,of course, distinguishable by a dress code that imposed vertiginously high heels and hemlines for the women, regardless of age, and strangely shrunken jackets in silky materials for the younger men. As though the cast of Ally McBeal had been outfitted by Victoria's Secret.  

We started our wait with a certain optimism. The list of cases to be heard was pinned up on a noticeboard outside the court. Lambert + 1 was scheduled for 10.00. After an hour or so, we understood that the list wasn't simply inaccurate in terms of the time it had allotted to each case. Its order bore not even the slightest resemblance to what was going on. Case No. 17 was given immediate precedence. In Italy, 17 is an unlucky number; on this occasion, it's hard to say whose luck was worst. We gathered scraps of information about the case as people wandered in and out. It involved a man already jailed for attempted murder, an electric saw, a stalked grandmother, a locked cupboard filled with rifles, domestic violence in all its ugliness. More to the point, it involved 36 witnesses, each of whom - it became apparent -would be called to take the chair (there is no box). We watched them wait their turn to be questioned, all 36 of them. One young woman was cross-examined for more than half an hour; a man, who might have been her brother, even longer. People came and went, and came back again. Witnesses conferred outside the courtroom, where the judge, a slim, rather frail-looking woman who couldn't have been much more than thirty, listened and scribbled and sought clarity, and a man in a grey suit copied down, by hand, each single word that was said, because the only record that has legal value in Italy is produced by hand and therefore unalterable. There was much gnashing of teeth and wailing, principally among those whose cases, as the day wore on, were increasingly unlikely to be heard. 

One young man was particularly incensed. He'd been arrested for possession of a single marijuana plant some seven months ago and kept under house arrest ever since. If his case didn't come up, this could easily become a year or longer. He wandered, wild-eyed, around the echoing humid foyer at the building's heart. He was still there when we left; his lawyer had promised him that some deal with the judge had been struck to ensure his case be heard. I hope, for his sake, this was true. We had our brief moment of glory, when our witnesses were asked to stand up to be seen, an act that appears to carry some mysterious inexpressible judicial value, and the judge, who'd eaten a sorry looking sandwich within feet of us only half an hour before, rescheduled the hearing for February 2012, ten years to the month since the seals, which have never existed except on paper, were actually violated. It's a good thing none of us had anything better to do with our time. Except that, of course, we did. We could have worked out a system, for example, that took into account the time a hearing was likely to take on the basis of the number of witnesses called. It wouldn't have been that difficult. Anyone with half a brain could have done it. Perhaps one day, when the ministry of justice is less concerned with rendering the prime minister immune from the judicial system of the country he's been elected to govern, someone will have a go. If they need any help, they only have to ask.   

PS. I don't know when this photograph was taken but the dead tree outside the courthouse is still there. Still dead.