Yesterday I shared the first part of a story. A young boy called Martin was sent to stay with a relative while his mother was ill. He became friends with Philip, a boy of a similar age and they used to go out adventuring. On one occasion they had a terrible experienced when they saw a friend of Philip’s family push his father into a lock and let him drown. They didn’t realise but the friend, a young woman named Serina, was the father’s lover. The two little boys said nothing and Martin was sent home as his mother had recovered, and he never saw Philip again.
This is how my guilty secret started.
A couple of years ago I was called for jury service and I was given a panel number; after the usual days of turning up and not doing anything and being sent home, my number was called and I went in to serve on a murder trial. I guess everybody in this situation has that mix of emotions, nervousness, anxiety, and a weird sense of excitement – no doubt from reading too many novels or watched too many TV series about murder.
The accused was a small silver haired woman, and yes, you no doubt have realised what I took a couple of days to realise, that she was Selina. She was not called that, she was now Shirley, also known as Sheila, also known as Sylvia, but there was no mention that she had once been Selina. She was accused of murdering a man with whom she had been co-habiting. He had disappeared from their home and after a few days she had reported him missing. An extensive search was launched and two weeks later he was found in a nearby pond. The pond had been searched, but his body was caught under some staging; it was obviously not an accident as his feet were wrapped in a chain which was attached to an anvil. His body had deteriorated, but there was a slight injury to his head, not enough to be fatal, and it seemed he had drowned.
Without hearing any evidence at all I was convinced Selina/Sheila/Shirley was guilty. The man had been married to someone else, and his haunted wife sat in court, their adult son beside her. No, it wasn’t Philip, but seeing the two pale and tragic figures brought back my memories of that summer heart-stoppingly vividly. I realised that I didn’t even know Philip’s surname; it had never occurred to me to try somehow to find him, even though memories of that happy time reoccurred from time to time, usually triggered by vivid dreams. I never dreamt of the terrible events at the Gates of Hell, but I did occasionally think of them, remembering them as a series of images like still photos, strangely in black and white.
Should I have declared that I knew this woman? I did think about it but how could I really prove that I did? She reminded me of someone I barely knew who I remembered from one summer when I was still at junior school? I think even if I’d had more details I still would have said nothing. The evidence for the prosecution was pretty weak; neighbours had heard terrible rows between them, mainly with her screaming abuse and she had taken several days to report him missing. His wife and son were on holiday in New Zealand at the time and there was incontestable evidence they’d been there for weeks before the man disappeared and hadn’t returned until the day before his body was found.
The defence told us how unlikely it was that a small woman could have lifted the anvil or got it to the staging, let alone managed to get his body under the staging. A personal trainer from the local gym was called and she gave evidence that Selina, though petite worked out hard, particularly on the weights, and for a woman of her age and size she was very fit and very strong. Was this evidence? Circumstantial probably. The murdered man was 5′ 5″ and of slight build, weedy said one of the few witnesses, a neighbour.
Part of the case against her was that a previous partner had died in a boating accident and she had been investigated over what had happened as it was alleged she had hit him over the head and pushed him off the yacht. It was never proved, there was not enough actual evidence, but it was brought up at this trial, despite the defence protesting.
Eventually we jurors, led by the jury keepers, retired to mull over everything we’d heard. I wanted her to be guilty, I wanted her to go to jail, I wanted her to be punished for the murder of Philip’s father, but I had to put that aside as we discussed the case. Among the other jurors was a couple who queried and questioned everything, which I guess was good, but it all went on much longer than it needed to. We were sent home on the first day, and the second, and on the third day as once again I boarded my train my patience was running out. I’d kept pretty quiet in all the arguments, feeling so conflicted. To be really honest, I couldn’t see how she could have done it, despite being so fit and strong for her age and the victim so weedy.
I sat by the window of a table seat and a man sat beside me, his companion opposite, their luggage piled on the other window seat. We nodded hello, but I had my earphones in, listening to a podcast about Venetian art. I closed my eyes and was semi-dozing, and when one of my ear buds fell out I didn’t replace it, a little fed up with Titian and Tintoretto. I wasn’t deliberately eavesdropping, really I wasn’t. I was tired and more than a little fed-up, and troubled by which way I should vote in the trial.
“You been following trial mate, the one that’s been in the papers, that woman who bumped off her old man by drowning him?” said my neighbour.
Somehow I managed not to stir.
“She’s a right bitch, that one, deserves everything that’s coming. She ripped me right off.”
His friend said something I couldn’t hear.
“Yeah, that was the reason the pub went bust! My old lady left me and Shirley moved in – called herself Serena with me, worst mistake of my life! It was bad enough when she was with me, she couldn’t half scream, bloody hell she’d give it some! To me, to the customers, to anyone who crossed her. I thanked the lord when she baled out.”
His friend mumbled.
“The cow really did the dirty, screwed me right up! Fiddled the books, pretended to pay bills… she’s clever alright, a right smart bitch. When things all went tits up she’d long gone, but she ****ed me right up.”
I thought the guy was lucky not to have been found upside down in a barrel of best bitter.
“I got my own back, though,” my neighbour continued. “Someone mentioned they’d come across her, and she was living all fancy with a new bloke who had plenty of dough. Hands up, I’d been drinking, and shouldn’t have even been driving, but I went over to her gaff. I was going to give her the what for but as I sat in my car and had a bit of a top up, I thought that was too easy.
“It’s fair to say I don’t know what I had in mind, but I went up to her fancy place and went round the back. There was a big old garage, a coach house most like and there was this bloke and I just knew he was the one. He was one of those with stripy socks and plaited wrist bands like the kids wear, but his shirt was all tucked in like the kids don’t wear. I think he was tidying the garage because there was junk all over the drive.
“I think I might have just given him a load of verbals but he was that cocky with me, and what with the booze an’ all, I just gave him a slap for being cheeky. He went down like tenpin and there he was dead. F*** me, I couldn’t believe it, I’d only given him a tap!”
To say I was riveted was the hugest understatement imaginable! Selina was innocent! This stranger beside me on the 5:20 from Portsmouth and Southsea was proving that Selina hadn’t killed her lover.
“Well, I had to get rid of the evidence, didn’t I? I went on a quick wander to see what I could do, and bloody hell, how the other half live! They had a pond in their garden, a bloody big one. I was a bit addled by then, but a top up from me hip flask made it all clear. I’d toss him in the pond and it would look like an accident. Then I had a better idea. I’d toss him in the pond but I’d make it look like bloody Shirley had done it. He was a little guy and no trouble to get him down to the pond, but then I thought if he was just floating there it would look like he’d tripped. In among all the stuff out of his garage was this small anvil and some chain. No probs! And the rest as they say…”
The train jerked to a halt and my travelling companion and his mate heaved themselves out of their seats and left. I have no idea what they even looked like. I was so taken with what I’d just heard, I missed my stop, and had to get off at Trowbridge and catch the next train back to Salisbury.
We sat down round the table in the jury room and I cleared my throat.
“I haven’t contributed much to the discussion we’ve been having over the last few days, but like all of us, I guess it has been on my mind even when I’m home. I’d like to offer my thoughts and opinions on what we heard in the courtroom, and also what we have said among ourselves,” I began.
I’m not one for saying much, but when I do, so I’ve been told, I’m quite impressive. And impressive I was on this occasion. Quiet, reasoned, balanced, solid, I went through both ‘sides’ – Sheila guilty, Sheila not guilty. Calmly and coherently, logically and rationally I went through every aspect of the case and why I believed that Sheila was guilty,
There wasn’t much discussion, and in less than an hour the jury keeper led us back into the courtroom and the foreperson was asked by the clerk to give our verdict. Loud and strong our foreperson answered ‘guilty’.
Selina gave one outraged scream and then disappeared into dock as she collapsed and we could hear her screeching and her feet drumming as she had what can only be described as a tantrum.
I felt as if I had been holding my breath, holding my breath since that time I wet myself as I hid in the bushes as Selina pushed Philip’s father into the lock. I could breathe, a terrible claustrophobia evaporated and I felt alive in the real world.
That is my guilty secret. Do I feel guilty? Not one single bit.