Grouped by Autumn 2014, Short story, and Medium read

The Burden of Proof

The house was small and semi-detached and would have been at home in any suburb with a few pretensions to gentility.  Here, though, it was naked.  Coming up the approach road to the junction, cars jockeyed for position.  And then, at the junction with the dual carriageway where traffic lights always forced a lingering stop, there was nothing to do but rev up for the fast forward shove at the brief flash of green.  There, all on its lonesome, stood the little white house.

Every day during that strange time, waiting at the red light, Laura stared at it.  Often she was alone, the sole commuter heading out of town so early.  On the contra side, two or three cars might pass during the long interval designed to let rush hour trunk road traffic flow.  Time enough for detailed appraisal of the red and blue For Sale sign, with its hand-lettered telephone number, and the two uncut privet hedges struggling towards the light.  Lanky weeds fought long grass.  The pebbledash seemed freshly whitened, perhaps to tempt.  Lace curtains hung at each window to hide the emptiness within.  Who would buy a house here?  People might, she thought, they weren’t all so difficult to please. 

In the third week, the man showed himself.  He was standing at the front door as she slowed at the intersection.  He darted a quick look out.  Their eyes met.  At once he dived into the small porch and flattened himself against it, but she could still see him staring out.  His look was almost defiant.  As though, Laura thought, they had agreed that she would pretend she couldn’t see him.

She placed this sensation instantly.  It was precisely that engendered by her more dubious clients, as they told her the little facts that fleshed out their stories – stories that were perfect in every way, if she excluded the small matter of credibility.   When people lied, Laura could smell it, taste it.  With exactly the same false complicity she revved up, stared ahead and agreed to pretend that he wasn’t there at all.   She felt a disagreeable thump, which was her heart.  For the rest of the journey her thoughts ran on the man in the porch : rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.  He interested her.  For weeks her head had been buzzing non stop with her case, a complicated one-chance-in-a-lifetime fraud.  The client was consistent, clever and an excellent witness.  Really, there was nothing to worry about.

And after that the dull journey had a focus.  Just turning into the approach road mingled faint anxiety with pleasurable anticipation.  He moved about the house: she saw how the lace curtains fell in different folds, a few degrees out.  When a hand twitched at a window for three successive days, it was in recognition of her recognition.  The case was going well.  It was huge, and if she held her focus, she thought that she would make her name.  This gave her deep satisfaction.

One chilly Monday morning she went in particularly early and didn’t see her man.  The day went badly, and there was evidence she didn’t like the look of, evidence she should have delved into more deeply.  The next day she went in even earlier.  As the big car once again idled at the lights, he pulled a curtain right over, and then back.  Laura didn’t like that at all.  Strange, obsessive little man, awake so early in order to signal to her.  Why should be an object of attention in that way?  

Towards the end of the case the balance of power started shifting one way or another, things seemed erratic.  Of late the client had come to believe that something would happen to blight him, some unforeseeable bit of damage. She laughed at such fears, even while she felt them lightly brush her.   What were the facts?  He had her car number plate.  Item : one small man, brown hair.  Sharp eyes.  A hand that twitched a curtain.  It wasn’t a very telling description.  He had taken care not to show himself, she thought, with resentment.   She no longer looked at the house directly, but began instead to do something.  She got her mirror out and dabbed on lipstick, inspected her eyeliner.  To lull his suspicions.  To keep an even keel.  It was important to see and not be seen, to her as to him.

In the last week’s calm as they waited for the summing up, she could feel the ebbing sensation, the comedown of a thing ending.  He did not appear on the Monday or on the Tuesday.  She started to tell the story of the house to a junior clerk and realised half way through that it had no point, or ending, and veered onto a different topic.  She realised that it was over. She would probably never drive down that road ever again.  On Thursday, she passed the house thinking about the summing up; the man and his house did not enter her head.  The time for subterfuge was over.  Win or lose, she was going to take a holiday.  On Friday, the day of the verdict, she drove to court some twenty minutes before the usual time.  She had made her case and it was a good one.  This QC had presented it well.  Her approach was not so much a structural as a gradual undermining of the opposition’s case, a mole’s job.  She had dug a tunnel at just the right depth and was waiting for the opposition to fall into it.  It was actually quite elegant, her anti-construct. 

Driving up to the lights, braking Laura saw that the lights were green.   In that first surprise, it took her a moment to drive on.  Before she reached the corner, a small gaunt figure ran out of the house heading straight for the car.  He was much smaller and slighter than she had remembered.  Slowly, as if in a dream, he kept running – gaining on her, his sharp eyes burning her.  Laura accelerated. She turned the corner but he cut across, was gaining on her, faster and faster.  He kept running, and drew level.  With one swift jerk she turned the wheel, and the wing mirror just connected and hit his shoulder, throwing him reeling away.  She twisted the wheel straight at once and, as she did so , she saw his small body arc backwards and she saw, but did not hear, the crack of his head of brown hair hitting the sharp kerbstone.

A Ford transit van came round the corner and the driver, who had seen the man running towards her car and believed that he had seen the whole, proved a reliable and trustworthy witness.

The police were not unsympathetic.  They did what they had to do while she sat in the car at the kerbside, her hands on the wheel.  They were quite small hands, she thought, business-like, nails innocent of polish.  By the time they let her go, the empty road had filled with rubber-neckers queuing to inch past the ambulance.  She sat, and let the drivers look at her, and stared out, cold and incurious. 

Though she was very late, she did arrive in time to hear the verdict.  The client got off.  The case made her name, as she had hoped.  Her particular way of devolving the burden of proof was talked of as innovative, and would be copied.  Laura took her holiday.  A couple of weeks later the police sent her a standard letter saying that there might be a prosecution, blah blah.  Nothing ever happened.  They didn’t have a case.  

Her mind was henceforth a blurred, less comfortable thing.  She would choose from the numerous clients seeking her services only those who smelt right.  She would listen more carefully, and speak less.  Throughout the period of penance on the bus, queuing for the train, she never stopped scanning the crowd.  The right shade of brown hair or the slightest glimpse of a small gaunt figure, jolted through her.  Fear never went away. She would never stop inflicting punishment.  She would never stop looking for the dead man.

The house was small and semi-detached and would have been at home in any suburb with a few pretensions to gentility.  Here, though, it was naked.  Coming up the approach road to the junction, cars jockeyed for position.  And then, at the junction with the dual carriageway where traffic lights always forced a lingering stop, there was nothing to do but rev up for the fast forward shove at the brief flash of green.  There, all on its lonesome, stood the little white house.

Every day during that strange time, waiting at the red light, Laura stared at it.  Often she was alone, the sole commuter heading out of town so early.  On the contra side, two or three cars might pass during the long interval designed to let rush hour trunk road traffic flow.  Time enough for detailed appraisal of the red and blue For Sale sign, with its hand-lettered telephone number, and the two uncut privet hedges struggling towards the light.  Lanky weeds fought long grass.  The pebbledash seemed freshly whitened, perhaps to tempt.  Lace curtains hung at each window to hide the emptiness within.  Who would buy a house here?  People might, she thought, they weren’t all so difficult to please. 

In the third week, the man showed himself.  He was standing at the front door as she slowed at the intersection.  He darted a quick look out.  Their eyes met.  At once he dived into the small porch and flattened himself against it, but she could still see him staring out.  His look was almost defiant.  As though, Laura thought, they had agreed that she would pretend she couldn’t see him.

She placed this sensation instantly.  It was precisely that engendered by her more dubious clients, as they told her the little facts that fleshed out their stories – stories that were perfect in every way, if she excluded the small matter of credibility.   When people lied, Laura could smell it, taste it.  With exactly the same false complicity she revved up, stared ahead and agreed to pretend that he wasn’t there at all.   She felt a disagreeable thump, which was her heart.  For the rest of the journey her thoughts ran on the man in the porch : rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.  He interested her.  For weeks her head had been buzzing non stop with her case, a complicated one-chance-in-a-lifetime fraud.  The client was consistent, clever and an excellent witness.  Really, there was nothing to worry about.

And after that the dull journey had a focus.  Just turning into the approach road mingled faint anxiety with pleasurable anticipation.  He moved about the house: she saw how the lace curtains fell in different folds, a few degrees out.  When a hand twitched at a window for three successive days, it was in recognition of her recognition.  The case was going well.  It was huge, and if she held her focus, she thought that she would make her name.  This gave her deep satisfaction.

One chilly Monday morning she went in particularly early and didn’t see her man.  The day went badly, and there was evidence she didn’t like the look of, evidence she should have delved into more deeply.  The next day she went in even earlier.  As the big car once again idled at the lights, he pulled a curtain right over, and then back.  Laura didn’t like that at all.  Strange, obsessive little man, awake so early in order to signal to her.  Why should be an object of attention in that way?  

Towards the end of the case the balance of power started shifting one way or another, things seemed erratic.  Of late the client had come to believe that something would happen to blight him, some unforeseeable bit of damage. She laughed at such fears, even while she felt them lightly brush her.   What were the facts?  He had her car number plate.  Item : one small man, brown hair.  Sharp eyes.  A hand that twitched a curtain.  It wasn’t a very telling description.  He had taken care not to show himself, she thought, with resentment.   She no longer looked at the house directly, but began instead to do something.  She got her mirror out and dabbed on lipstick, inspected her eyeliner.  To lull his suspicions.  To keep an even keel.  It was important to see and not be seen, to her as to him.

In the last week’s calm as they waited for the summing up, she could feel the ebbing sensation, the comedown of a thing ending.  He did not appear on the Monday or on the Tuesday.  She started to tell the story of the house to a junior clerk and realised half way through that it had no point, or ending, and veered onto a different topic.  She realised that it was over. She would probably never drive down that road ever again.  On Thursday, she passed the house thinking about the summing up; the man and his house did not enter her head. The time for subterfuge was over. Win or lose, she was going to take a holiday.  On Friday, the day of the verdict, she drove to court some twenty minutes before the usual time. She had made her case and it was a good one.  This QC had presented it well.  Her approach was not so much a structural as a gradual undermining of the opposition’s case, a mole’s job.  She had dug a tunnel at just the right depth and was waiting for the opposition to fall into it.  It was actually quite elegant, her anti-construct. 

Driving up to the lights, braking Laura saw that the lights were green.   In that first surprise, it took her a moment to drive on.  Before she reached the corner, a small gaunt figure ran out of the house heading straight for the car.  He was much smaller and slighter than she had remembered.  Slowly, as if in a dream, he kept running – gaining on her, his sharp eyes burning her.  Laura accelerated. She turned the corner but he cut across, was gaining on her, faster and faster.  He kept running, and drew level.  With one swift jerk she turned the wheel, and the wing mirror just connected and hit his shoulder, throwing him reeling away.  She twisted the wheel straight at once and, as she did so , she saw his small body arc backwards and she saw, but did not hear, the crack of his head of brown hair hitting the sharp kerbstone.

A Ford transit van came round the corner and the driver, who had seen the man running towards her car and believed that he had seen the whole, proved a reliable and trustworthy witness.

The police were not unsympathetic.  They did what they had to do while she sat in the car at the kerbside, her hands on the wheel.  They were quite small hands, she thought, business-like, nails innocent of polish.  By the time they let her go, the empty road had filled with rubber-neckers queuing to inch past the ambulance.  She sat, and let the drivers look at her, and stared out, cold and incurious. 

Though she was very late, she did arrive in time to hear the verdict.  The client got off.  The case made her name, as she had hoped.  Her particular way of devolving the burden of proof was talked of as innovative, and would be copied.  Laura took her holiday.  A couple of weeks later the police sent her a standard letter saying that there might be a prosecution, blah blah.  Nothing ever happened.  They didn’t have a case.  

Her mind was henceforth a blurred, less comfortable thing.  She would choose from the numerous clients seeking her services only those who smelt right.  She would listen more carefully, and speak less.  Throughout the period of penance on the bus, queuing for the train, she never stopped scanning the crowd.  The right shade of brown hair or the slightest glimpse of a small gaunt figure, jolted through her.  Fear never went away. She would never stop inflicting punishment, looking for the dead man.