Monday morning, or Day One, as Laura dubbed it, began with a brief frisk of her arms and legs followed by a thorough search of her handbag. Satisfied that the Thermos flask contained nothing explosive, the guard directed her to an airless room with cheapskate chairs and an overindulgence of cork noticeboards. Forty strangers waited there, corralled into an unsuitably small space, each one trying not to make eye contact. The awkwardness was akin to the unnatural quietness of a doctor’s waiting room.
She was surrounded by the restless and frustrated; keen to start and eager for the finish line. Some had brought newspapers and paperbacks. One young man with wireless earpieces hugged a laptop sleeve to his chest and dropped into a chair with an ingrained expression of boredom. In the corner, the vending machine was stuffed with crisp packets and confectionery, its unhealthy contents an incentive for eating out at lunchtimes. Laura regretted leaving the puzzle book and obligatory apple at home.
The first morning of jury service involved watching a short information video and completing the necessary tedious bureaucracy. Waiting for something to happen, Laura stared out of the window at the rugged stone walls of Lincoln castle. The sense of entrapment intensified. None of this was her choice. Nothing ever was, it seemed.
A black-cloaked usher swept into the room with a pile of papers balanced on one winged arm and spoke to the collected with her flittering eyes partially hidden by purple-rimmed spectacles. The greeting was a scripted welcome delivered in a happy-all-the-time tone. The reason was obvious – this was a normal working day.
A typical morning for Laura began with a Sudoku and eating the worthy apple. Crosswords were too whimsical and nuanced for her taste in puzzles. She completed both activities on the bus ride into the city. Then, after an essential caffeine fix (robust black Americano), she logged on to her computer and checked her emails for anything significant, as in important to her projects rather than office tittle-tattle politics. Laura preferred a predictable, uneventful day to exciting unplanned crises or emotional meltdowns. No surprises, no sudden happenings. At least a trial was structured and carved into a pattern as old as the castle. With luck, she’d incorporate the disruption into her life with as little fuss as possible. Managing disruption had been an unfortunate trend ever since Marco had extended his trip to Italy.
‘Please answer your name,’ the usher said, rearranging her papers. Names rattled out of her mouth, then, ‘Laura Naylor?’
‘Here.’ Laura collected her handbag and flask.
The middle-aged woman next to her chuckled. ‘It’s like being at school again.’
Laura’s neighbour stuck up her arm, exposing loose folds of flesh and a red-mottled scar. ‘That’s me.’
More carefully pronounced names were called, their owners identified among the crowd. Having completed the roll call, the usher tucked her files under her arm. ‘Please follow me.’
They formed an orderly procession through the courthouse. Somehow, they would be whittled down to twelve. They were herded along corridors and stopped outside an oak door where the word “silence” was embossed in brass.
‘Let’s hope they don’t pick us,’ Beryl whispered. Close up, the chestnut recolouring of her hair was obvious; the roots were honey grey.
Laura was thinking the contrary. She had no wish to sit around waiting, nor be told to reappear each day to be dismissed after a couple of hours. How would she spend that wasted time? More Sudokus? A book? She reserved reading for quiet evenings.
Beryl clutched her bag. ‘I mean, what if it’s a murder?’
‘Unlikely,’ Laura said. ‘Let’s hope not.’
‘One of my cousins was stabbed to death outside a pub.’
Laura, startled, nearly tripped over her own toes.
‘Second cousin, twice removed, or thereabouts,’ Beryl said. Hardly riveting; Beryl appeared equally disappointed.
Murders were rare according to the statistics; Laura had checked. Would gruesome photographs and distressed witnesses bother her? There was no way of telling. Would she prefer a lengthy case or oddments of criminality in bite-sized trials?
‘It could go on for weeks,’ Beryl said. ‘I can spare the time. Retired, myself. Tough on you young people, though, isn’t it?’
Laura appreciated the young remark: she wasn’t wearing any make-up.
The usher coughed loudly. ‘Please remember to be quiet. Just fill the seats at the back of the court.’
Laura followed Beryl into the courtroom. The floorboards creaked, as did the unwelcoming benches. She was surrounded by solemn wood panelling that covered the walls and partitioned the court into boxed sections. The echoes of travelling voices were uninterrupted by the jurors’ arrival; from barrister to barrister, clerk to judge, the mash-up of words lost their meaning long before the sounds reached her ears. The room was alien, almost unnatural, like a film set. She half-expected a cameraman to leap out or a director to shout, ‘Cut’.
The judge, wigged and gowned, cleaned his spectacles, waiting for the newcomers to settle into their seats. Laura’s attention immediately fell on the man in the dock: middle-aged, hunched, and eyes downcast. His smart smoky suit matched the colour of his hair. Laura couldn’t picture him as a pub brawler or burglar. He blew his nose on a handkerchief. He wasn’t going to softly sob his heart out? Surely the victims cried and the defendant remained grim-faced? He stuffed the hanky back in his jacket pocket and glanced up to the public gallery. A solitary woman, similar in age, elegantly dressed, nodded and offered him a wobbly lipped smile. When he didn’t respond in kind, she redirected her attention to the judge.
The introduction was a list of reminders, things to do, and more specifically, what not to say outside the courthouse. The task completed, the judge allowed his gaze to travel the length of each row, eyeing his potential jury with a neutral, somewhat bland expression.
‘Ladies and gentleman, I should warn you this case could last three or possibly four weeks.’
A collective gasp greeted his statement, prompting mutterings about the expected two weeks of service.
‘That’s it. He’s a murderer,’ Beryl said, bright-eyed.
Laura trusted statistics.
The prosecuting barrister rose and faced them. ‘Before we select the jury, does anyone here know Craig Brader?’
His question was met with silence.
Craig Brader. Laura thought hard. Had she seen his name in the newspapers, on Facebook? Anywhere? Nothing sprang into the void. Pleased, the lawyer nodded at the judge.
‘I bet it’s his wife who’s dead, and that woman is his lover.’ Beryl uttered her condemnation without fear of her surroundings.
‘Hush.’ Laura pressed her finger to her lips. ‘That’s your name they’ve called out.’
‘Oh, is it?’ Beryl rose and entered the jury box.
Four more names, and each person moved forward to the segregated area.
‘Laura Naylor. Juror seven,’ the usher said.
Laura’s legs were already stiff. She took up position next to a man with chewed fingernails and corduroy trousers.
Straightening up, the wary defendant watched the jurors occupy their seats, his sharp eyes perched above pinched cheeks, sandwiched on either side of a long nose. He wasn’t crying. He wasn’t even upset.
What had Craig Brader done that required three weeks of scrutiny?