VERDICT

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VERDICT
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.
Odd how her image remains sharp. 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.” 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. I remember that dictum from school. I liked our science teacher Mr Cardew, because he rarely stuck to the lesson plan and 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.
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, hypnotised by approaching headlights.
I drove that stretch of road so often. At daybreak, when deer plunge across the tarmac, and rabbits vanish into the greenery. 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 the question. I felt a jolt as if one of my wheels had struck a large stone, or a rabbit. There was no reason to stop but 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, and forgot him. I did not want to dwell on sorrow, for 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.” 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. Even so, the worm of unease lingered: I brooded. Did memory play me false? 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. “Indeed, in classical physics, there are only two possibilities: yes or no, alive or dead. In quantum physics, however...” He held up a hand as if to stop us in our tracks. “It is the act of observation that 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.
Is happiness ever real? It seemed so at the time. Yet, 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.
END

About the Author: 
Madeleine McDonald lives on the east coast of England, where the wind whistles up through the floorboards. Her third novel, A Shackled Inheritance, was published in 2016.