Tuesday, November 3, 1998
I'M SHOCKED. I WOKE UP AFTER FOUR HOURS' SLEEP THIS MORNING still trembling. It feels as if there's a bubble of bile at the back of my throat, ready to splatter out through my mouth if I try to speak. I was exuberantly sick in the taxi on the way home, all hot browns and greens, which is odd because I have no memory of eating for the last three days. I tipped the driver twenty and apologized over and over. He said, don't worry, pal, no bother at all, just get out for fucksake, quick, before it happens again.
How could they find her guilty? She's a doctor, for Chrissake, she's a mother. We're both professional people. Things like this don't happen to people like us. Now I understand why mothers stand over dead children and shout NO as if their soul were exploding. It's a primordial urge; fate has made a terrible mistake and needs to be informed; in a just world this could never happen.
The courtroom was packed for the verdict. Even the policemen from the other courts snuck in to stand at the back in the dark. The public galleries seemed to include the same faces each day, but they must have changed. The line was one hundred, two hundred yards long every morning. A ragged, untidy snake of people having one last cigarette, nodding and chatting to the people before and aft, sometimes hunched against a hard rain, sometimes upright as meerkats in the morning sun, ready to come and sit in the warm, watching our lives being ripped apart as they nibbled their candies and nudged one another. Almost all were quite old. I wondered if that's the optimum age for shamelessly indulging in ghoulish interests, but they're probably retired or unemployed and have more time for such activities than young people.
Surprisingly few of the audience were journalists. From the extent of the coverage, you'd think every hack in the country was there. The journalists stood out because they were there for a purpose, bored and bent over notepads, scribbling in shorthand, glancing up every so often when a new player appeared. A larger portion of the crowd watched in shiny-faced amazement. A bald man who smelled like mustard always managed to inveigle his way to the front row. He seemed to know everyone. A recurrent group of three septuagenarian women saved places for each other in line. They all had the same tight white perm. One afternoon one of the ladies brought fruit scones for them to eat with their cups of tea from the machine in the lobby. She had buttered them and wrapped them individually in cellophane. They tittered and giggled as they ate. I was sitting on the bench across the corridor from them, thinking to myself: they'll remember this trial because of the scones. My life's being fucked ragged and all they'd remember are the fruit scones and their chum's winsome wit in bringing them each a funny little snack.
I sat through the two weeks alone, the sole representative of Susie's family. She waved to me, made faces, and occasionally turned for a reaction. I pretended to be a journalist with exclusive access and wrote everything down in a poor man's impression of shorthand (jst shrt wds, rlly). The newsmen had worked out that I was her husband at the start of the case. They realized during the first day, because they saw me talking to Fitzgerald during the breaks.
Fitzgerald has become a bit of a celeb during the trial. He was lampooned in the press last Sunday: a cartoon showed his headmasterish scowl and his big gray eyebrows, dressed in lawyers' robes, driving an expensive sports car with APPEAL written on it and money flying out of the back. They're never, ever funny, those cartoons.
The journalists approached me at the start of the trial; some even slipped notes into my hand like lovesick schoolgirls. The answering machine is choked with messages every day. They want to buy my story or get some sort of comment about each new development.
They offer money, fame, a chance to have my say. They approach and approach, ignoring my snubs, rebuffing my rudeness.
The public didn't realize who I was until we went back in for the verdict, when the journalists shouted questions at me outside the court. When we were sitting down, the man who smelled of mustard turned around and smiled, pointing at the back of Susie's head. "Is that your missus?" he asked, surprised and pleased.
I was so nervous I didn't trust myself to speak, so I nodded. "Oh," he said. "Very good. You look queasy."
I muttered something about the possibility of being sick and he gave me a mint to suck.
The court official with the ceremonial stick came in and we all stood up, sat down, genuflected at the Crown, whatever. The jury clattered back in along the little wooden benches and sat down. The room was so quiet it felt as if everyone had inhaled and frozen, sitting perfectly still for the seven minutes it took the clerk to declare the result.
Guilty of murder. A murderer. Murderess. My own precious Susie, my sweetheart, my funny valentine, my dear Christ Almighty. Every pore on my body swelled open, as if trying to absorb the news osmotically. A hair fell from my head. A man dropped a pen down the row from me, and I kept thinking: he's dropped it, he's dropped it.
Susie turned slowly in her chair, her black hair sliding off her shoulder like a lazy oil slick, the flannel of her pale gray suit jacket folding perfectly into tiny consecutive waves below her shoulder blade. She looked back at me, horrified and helpless. Instinctively, I reached out to touch her and smashed my knuckles loudly on the glass barrier. In the tense hush of the courtroom it sounded as if I were rapping jauntily on the glass to get her attention. Everyone - the journalists, the old women, even the old man-stared at me disapprovingly. It was the most private, despairing, appalling moment of our lives, and yet they sat there, watching us, disapproving of my reaching over to give a last free embrace to my darling wife. It was like watching a loved one die on the pitch at Wembley and then being criticized for your technique.
Finding me a disappointment, as ever, Susie seemed to shrink to half-size, to look more alone than before in her big wood-and-glass playpen. Sad and defeated, she dropped her eyes to her lap and turned away from me. My hand was throbbing. Everyone stood up. I felt as if I were sinking into a grave.
Sentencing has been deferred until psychiatric and social reports can be drawn up; exactly the same sort of reports that she used to draw up herself for a living. We have to go back for the sentencing hearing in a few weeks, but murder has a statutory penalty of life imprisonment, so that's what she'll get. Whose lives are they taking in payment? Susie's or mine? Or Margie's? The forces of justice are orphaning our daughter at nineteen months old.
Margie'll never know her mother. She'll never walk past a makeup counter, catch a smell, and remember a thousand days at her mother's knee. She'll never roll indignant teenage eyes and join the other girls bitching about their bloody mums during school lunchtime. Susie will never surprise her in her thirties with a story about little Margie saying something rude to a pompous visitor, about falls and friends forgotten, about the literal confusion of early childhood. I wanted to stand up and scream at them; they're taking the wrong life.
As I made my way out of the courtroom, I tried hard to blend into the milling public, but I'm too tall to be inconspicuous, especially in a crowd of the midgetized elderly. A cross-eyed woman ran up to me and asked for my autograph. The crowd turned on me, wanting papers of their own signed, poking at my hand with chewed pens. I kept my eyes on the door and plowed through them. What does my autograph mean? Do they want a bit of me? It can't be salable, surely.
The lobby was quieter than usual. Most of the journalists had been corralled into a side room, but some members of the public took flash photos of me and got told off by the policeman on the door. Fitzgerald took me aside to brief me, but I couldn't hear the words he was saying, just a vague rumbling mumble from a mile away about an appeal and statements for the press.
To my surprise I found I was nodding and then shook my head violently. What the fuck was I agreeing to? It felt like one of those no-trousers- at-assembly dreams I used to have. I managed to rub my ten-ton lips together. "I can't speak."
Fitzgerald nodded. "Aye, well, all right, then," he said matter-of- factly. "That's not a problem. We can proceed without your active, verbal participation. Leave it to me. Just stand next to me and keep quiet, no matter what they ask. They may try to provoke you." A woman passed us and slipped, late, into the journalists' room.
Through the swinging door I could see a gang of grown men, half of whom had never been in the public galleries, I'm sure. Pointing at the two seats set out for Fitzgerald and me were fifty beady eyes, fluffy microphones and cameras, boxy TV cameras on stands, and flashes on tripods. Their voices were high and excited. Sitting on chairs and swiveling around to talk, writhing, grinning at each other.
The Dr. Susie Harriot Murder Trial was going to run and run for them. It was just an entertainment. I've seen it happen to other people and never considered the casual brutality of it. Distant participants in the story, who neither knew nor loved Susie, would sell their stories. They'd be paid little more than pocket money to attach their faces to a string of misquotes that would make Susie sound sexier than she is, more evil, more interesting.
"Can't go in there," I said to Fitzgerald, knowing this more surely than any other thing in the universe. "Just -I'm going to be sick."
Fitzgerald looked at my face, and judging from the way his head darted away from my mouth, he knew I was telling the truth. He put his hand on my forearm and patted it once. "Perhaps the best course of action in this instance would be for you to go home," he said. "Just go home."
"Can't I see her? Before she's gone?" Fitzgerald shook his head and apologized. I fled. A couple of photographers followed me and took pictures as I hailed a cab. I left the car there. I've driven drunk; I've driven at sixty through blinding rain; I've driven my dying mother-in-law to the hospital, but I couldn't have fitted the key into the ignition yesterday. The car's probably got a stack of tickets on it already.
The answering machine was full when I got in, men and women offering gazillions for my story. We pay more, I care, so sorry, remember me from the court? I was sitting behind you, over your left shoulder.
I'm in the papers this morning, hailing the taxi, looking shifty and portly and weird. I had no idea I looked like that. I've always thought having longer hair made me seem rakish and bohemian. Instead I look as if I'm inexplicably ashamed of the tops of my ears. I'm plump in parts as well, which is a surprise. A sagging roll of fat is perched on my belt, and my jaw's indistinct. I look tearful, and my back's rounded as if I'm waiting to be slapped across the back of the head. This may well be the only time in my life when I'm in the papers, and I look fat and ill-groomed and frightened.
I went out and bought all the other papers this morning to see if my strange appearance was the fault of a crooked lens, but it wasn't. It's bizarre being in the papers. I feel a thrill of something, a mixture of fear and pleasure. The pleasure is like the delight of seeing an unexpected photograph of myself at a party I don't remember being at; it's confirmation that I exist and am up to stuff. The fear is more real. People will know me from those photographs; people I've never met before; odd people. They'll look at my photograph for too long; they'll laugh at me for having a fast, faithless wife and for not working; make jokes about my hair and fatness to each other on the train on their way home from work; use me as a nickname for a misguided sidekick whose wife is fucking a serial killer.
The arrant stupidity of the coverage is astonishing. They're selling it as a sexy story, making out Susie was a frustrated suburban type. One of the tabloids is telling people not to trust their doctors anymore.
I've brought all the papers up here to the study, to hide them from Margie. It's irrational, I know, but I don't want these stories near her. I don't want her perfect, tiny hands with their rosy fingernails to touch the paper they're printed on. It feels like an unforgivable act of brutality, to bring these terrible accusations into such a precious, innocent life. She'll see them one day. She'll be curious and look them up, and I can't protect her indefinitely from articles like this one from yesterday:
SEX DOCTOR VERDICT ON PSYCHO LOVER'S MURDER
A verdict is expected today in the trial of Dr. Susie Harriot, 30, former psychiatrist at Sunnyfields State Mental Hospital. Dr. Susie is accused of the brutal murder of Andrew Gow, 33. Gow, previously found guilty of the "Riverside Ripper" series of murders but recently released on appeal, was discovered in an abandoned cottage in the Highlands, having bled to death. The prosecution claims that Dr. Harriot was in love with Gow and, enraged at his marrying another woman, killed him.
The body of his new wife, Donna McGovern, still has not been found, although her blood was identified from a sample in the couple's white Golf Polo car. Strathclyde Police say that they would be willing to prosecute for Miss McGovern's death if Dr. Harriot is acquitted on the present charges. A spokesman stated yesterday:
"During the summer months the hills of Sutherland are busy with walkers and we would ask people to keep alert and watch out for anything unusual."
We've got this to look forward to all next summer. And every following summer if they don't find Donna this time around. Every time they find the decomposed body of some poor depressed soul who has staggered off to the Highlands to die, Margie will have the whole story thrown back in her face. It's not an uncommon occurrence either. Last year, before I was interested in such things, I remember they found the remains of a young French guy who had walked off into the hills with no ID and the labels cut out of his clothing. It was a suicide. He'd left a note in a hostel. He just wanted to melt back into the land, he said. In the same month they also found a woman from London who'd died of starvation while camping next to a loch. Apparently she was vegan and was giving airianism a go.
The coverage in the broadsheets isn't much better. An intellectual phony has written three pages in a review section about the significance of Gow's dying in Cape Wrath. Just because it has the potential to be a metaphor doesn't give it meaning. He can't have listened to a word of the trial, because Susie didn't choose the venue; Gow went to Cape Wrath and she followed him. He talks about Gow's head injuries, saying maybe all psychiatrists want to bash their patients' brains in, smash the organ that offends.
I can't answer the phone. Mum called from Spain and left a message asking how we got on and saying she was worried. I heard Dad clearing his throat over and over in the background, like a phlegm-powered car revving at the lights. He coughs like that to signal distress. I can't stand it when he's upset; it makes me feel so mortal. The English papers will have arrived there by now, so they'll know anyway. It might even be on the news.
I can't bring myself to speak to anyone. Instead I remind myself of the need to focus on the positive things. I must:
1. Keep Margie away from the television so she doesn't see pictures of me or her mother flashed up every two minutes. I don't want her to remember this. I want it to pass her by for as long as possible because it's going to be part of her life forever.
2. Remember to pay bills and keep going.
3. Get back into a routine. Routine is comfort and as close to normal as we can hope for over the next short while.
4. Have a purpose. Before, when we discussed the possibility of a guilty verdict (Me: "Oh, my Jingo, that'll never happen," followed by hearty laugh. Susie grinning heavenward: "No, darling, of course not. Nothing bad ever happens to young professionals like us," followed by brittle, tinkling laugh and a little sip of sherry), Fitzgerald asked me to look through all of Susie's papers and see if I can find anything that might give us grounds for an appeal. We can't appeal against the sentence because life's mandatory for murder. We can only appeal against the conviction. We have to show that the evidence was flawed and claim a miscarriage of justice. It's the only grounds for appeal.
I've already spent forty minutes this evening in Susie's study sorting through piles of newspaper cuttings and tapes and professional files. I'm going to come up here night after night, and go through every note and paper with microscopic care.
- paperback: 311 pages
- Publisher: Back Bay Books
- ISBN-10: 0316058572
- ISBN-13: 9780316058575