By Madeleine McDonald
“Guilty or not guilty?” Directing my gaze to the shelf where my hands rest, I focus on a blemish in the polished yellow wood. I avoid looking at the forewoman of the jury. She is too ordinary: she could be me.
I observed her as the trial proceeded. Middle-aged, plump, respectable. Wearing her best outfit for this unexpected intrusion into her ordered life. I remember her frown of concentration as she listened to argument and counter-argument.
Odd how her image remains sharp, although I look away. For three days, unable to sleep at night, I recalled the fake brass buttons on her suit, and the different scarf she tucked into the neckline each day. Her fashion dilemma seemed more real than the extravagant language of the prosecution, or the flamboyant response from my barrister.
In court, truth is irrelevant. The prosecution built its case. Then my barrister rose and adjusted his robes. I saw Alex smirk. “Mr Read.” My barrister marked a pause for effect. “Mr Read, I put it to you that your evidence is nothing more than the fantasy of a resentful, thwarted man, a man who cheated on his wife, a man driven by spite and revenge.” I paraphrase, for my barrister was as verbose as the prosecuting counsel. In short, he accused my ex-husband of making it up. “A tissue of lies.”
It took the police two years to arrest me. I still owned the car but, by then, the events of that night had acquired the quality of a dream. What did happen? The honest answer is: I don’t know.
Memory is fallible. The funny thing is I remember that dictum from school. The summer I was 16, I fancied myself in love with a boy called Danny Rogers, which led to me signing up to do a math and physics course alongside him. Danny and I soon split up, but I remember Mr Cardew’s lessons, because he rarely stuck to the lesson plan and instead took us down interesting by-ways. Memories are no more than connections in the brain, he told us. “Imagine a train shunted onto the wrong track,” he boomed, to explain that memories can be repressed, warped or rose-tinted. Behind his back, Danny winked at me.
Has anxiety shunted my memories onto the wrong track? Or did elation obliterate my other senses? I don’t know. All I know is that I wake sweating from dreams where I stand in the dark, rooted to the spot, hypnotized by approaching headlights.
I drove that stretch of road so often, both before and after. I have driven it at daybreak, when deer plunge across the tarmac, and rabbits vanish into the greenery. I have driven it on rain-soaked nights, slowing down for tight bends, aware of the dips where treacherous puddles form, lulled by the swish of the windscreen wipers.
There was no rain that night, but the cyclist was riding without lights and without a helmet. The police confirmed those facts. Questioned in court, I told the truth: “I saw nothing. I heard nothing.” I felt something, but the barrister did not ask me that question. What I felt was a jolt as if one of my wheels had struck a large stone, or a rabbit. I drove on because there was no reason to stop. When I found minor damage to the wheel arch the next day, I knew I had hit something larger than a rabbit. Possibly a fox or a badger.
A few days later I read in the local paper that a cyclist had been killed on the same stretch of road and the police were appealing for witnesses. A cloud passed over my sunlight world. His poor family, I thought, then forgot him. I did not want to dwell on sorrow. I wanted the rest of the world to be as happy as I was. Alex had just asked me to marry him. I had faith in him, and in myself. The future stretched before us, golden with opportunity.
Then I read that the police were looking for the driver of a red car. A worm of unease stirred. Washing away winter’s mud, I inspected the dent in the wheel arch. Flakes of red paint adhered to my fingertips. My nail traced a small scratch in the metal. No fox or badger would gouge a groove in metal.
Alex scoffed at my fears. “That? That’s nothing. You told me you stopped off at the supermarket on your way home. Somebody’s scraped the car with a trolley. Or maybe a pushchair.” He ruffled my hair. “Stop fretting. I’ll buy one of those filler paints and fix it for you.”
Common sense told me he was right. Looking again, I agreed the scratch was small. Even so, the worm of unease lingered: I brooded. What did happen? In idle moments, I recalled the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat—another of Mr. Cardew’s digressions, although one that was a step too far for teenage minds. We stared in bemusement when our eccentric teacher jumped from wavelengths versus packets of energy to an animal that was neither alive nor dead until the very moment an observer opened the box and had a look. “But, sir, that’s impossible,” we protested. Mr Cardew dismissed our objections. “In quantum theory,” he boomed, “the act of observation determines reality.”
That night, I had not been drinking. Counsel for the prosecution bullied me, but I stood firm. “It was a night of celebration, Mrs Read. You heard witnesses state that you were in high spirits. Can you be sure you did not have a second glass of champagne? Perhaps followed by a third?”
“No,” I asserted, with perfect truth. “I never drink more than one glass when I’m driving.” I like to stay in control; it chimes with my sense of order. As an accountant, order and accuracy are my watchwords.
That night, I was drunk on nothing stronger than joy. Alex and I had hosted a discreet party after work to announce our engagement. It was to be a second chance for each of us.
Is happiness ever real? It seemed so at the time.
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Another of Mr Cardew’s pronouncements that lingers in my mind. Within a year, Alex took me for granted. Resentment smouldered until, one day, I flipped. He had an easy excuse for everything, but texts on his phone told a different story. “Get out of my house!” I screamed. Then I locked the door and threw his belongings out of the window.
Guilty or not guilty? When the forewoman speaks, I shall know the answer to a mystery that vexes me still. The verdict will bring closure.
Madeleine McDonald explores history and tangled loyalties in her writing. She received an honourable mention in the 2017 Roswell Award for short science fiction and her latest novel, “A Shackled Inheritance”, was published in 2016.Her short story “Last Resting Place” was published on omdb! in October, 2014.
Copyright © 2017 Madeleine McDonald. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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