Short Story Honourable Mention - March 2013

Shirley Bell - Jury Service

Before the train reached her station she already knew she had missed the last bus.

Helen stared helplessly out of the carriage window into almost complete darkness, because outside there was nothing but flat fields that stretched to the horizon, with occasional pin pricks of light twinkling from scattered villages. They had already passed through Sleaford with its momentary blaze of lights and were approaching the glow of Boston now.

There were no buses after 6.30 p.m but the man at the jury swearing-in had told them they could claim for all legitimate expenses, including taxis, so Helen was glad not to have to trail to the bus station tonight as she usually did. A taxi. It was quite exciting; a bit of a luxury, in fact.

She got off the train and pulled her coat up around her throat. It was cold and the wind funnelled along the platform and picked spitefully at the hem of her coat and swirled around her legs. She had dressed in a smart suit and heels, instead of the jeans and shirts she normally wore, because she felt she needed to look serious and trustworthy while she was sitting in the court. Like a grown up, she thought to herself, though she was a grown up, silly. More grown up, then; someone who had to be taken seriously.

But now the high shoes slowed her down. She wasn’t used to clicking along in them any more; she usually wore trainers these days. The suit and the shoes belonged to the old days, when she worked in the bank in the city, and had never imagined she would end up in this strange flat landscape of billowing cabbages. The whole place smelled like a fart. And she was with the children all day at the moment; she had become a mummy. The jury people were even paying her own mum to be a child minder for the week or two Helen would be away.

 Simon drove her into town every day and dropped her at the station and then went on to the hospital where he was working as an administrator. It was a good position; he had done really well, though she could not quite see what she was going to do in the future in this place, when the children went to school. Though they had three under fours; it wasn’t going to be any time soon.

The other passengers had all hurried up the stairs and crossed the bridge over the line ahead of her and then they were gone, melting out into the front of the station towards the car park or the taxis. Helen looked around her. The taxis. Shit. There was only one left now and there was already a fare in the front seat. Helen froze with despair; it was a long walk into town to the other cab ranks. She was tired. She just wanted to be home. She tapped on the window.

The cab driver opened it.

“I don’t suppose you can take me to Swineshead? All the other taxis have gone.”

He looked her up and down. She could not see him very well but he had a round friendly face, under thinning, slicked-back hair. He gave her a snaggle-toothed smile.

A thin, dark man was sitting alongside the cabby. He was also looking towards her. His eyes were shadowed but she caught a glimpse of the whites.

“Course I can, love,” said the cabby in the local accent that wasn’t quite Yorkshire and wasn’t Norfolk and wasn’t Midlands, either. Helen could never get a handle on it. “But I’ve got to drop my fare off first.”

“That’s fine.”

Helen nodded and got in the back. It made no difference to her; she wasn’t paying after all. Neither of the men spoke as the car turned out of the station forecourt, towards the main road, then turned left to the roundabout. They drove off towards the centre of the town, passing closed shops, the Chinese, the two Indian restaurants, Pizza Hut, the cinema, the municipal buildings.

Helen lay back in the seat and closed her eyes. She wondered if Simon had fed the children – of course he had fed the children! And then she wondered what they had had. He never remembered to make anything for her, but she never wanted much. She was having to get up at 6.00 to get the train to Lincoln to get to the court house. Each day was long and dull. The case was a mean little offence by a shop manageress accused of fiddling refunds. It involved endless lists of till receipts, and irritable shop assistants who were bitter at being made into suspects alongside their erstwhile manageress.

 She had lunch each day with her co-jurists: pizza or a burger, that was all. Then back up the stairs, through a crowd of what seemed to be an undifferentiated mix of defendants and witnesses and the public, before returning to the stuffy court with its panelling, high windows, men in wigs, and heat and stuffiness and droning on and on. After that, it was home, a sandwich, sorting out the children’s clothes and food for the following day ready for mum; bed; the alarm clock; getting everyone up and dressed; putting on make-up and tousling her hair and then she went back again to Lincoln. It felt like a prison sentence. She could not wait for the case to be over so that she could get back to her normal life.

She opened her eyes.

The taxi was crossing the bridge over the river. The two men still hadn’t spoken. The driver was going the wrong way. He was in the right hand lane at the lights, his indicator clicking on and off, waiting to turn down alongside the river. Home was miles away, in quite the opposite direction, along one of the main roads out of the town and past the shopping centre and supermarket, and then the long straight road through empty fields before the turn into her village. Which was nothing much really, just a strip of houses strung out along a main road, with fields and drains and more fields as far as the eye could see, until there was a faint blue stripe of hills miles away towards Grantham.

Helen groped in her bag, but she already knew where her phone was. It was on the kitchen counter, charging. She had forgotten to pick it up and when she remembered it in the car Simon said they could not go back for it or she would miss her train. She would have to do without it for today.

The cab turned into the docks. Helen looked out of the window. She could see the bulk of containers, grain chutes, and the darker outline of ships against the darkness of the sky.

The cab slowed down, turned and drew to a halt in a kind of tunnel between walls of containers. It was shadowed and quiet. She thought she could see a metallic glint, where the surface of the water heaved to and fro beyond the two rows of containers.

There was a long silence. The car engine ticked a little as it cooled down.

Shit, thought Helen. Shit. Shit. Shit.  How could I be so stupid?

“What are you doing?” she said.

Somehow she still hoped it was all going to be OK. They would drop off the passenger who would be returning to his ship, yes, that was it, he was returning to his ship, and then the friendly cabby would smile at her and start the car and reverse it and turn out and drive away from the quiet sinister shapes of the docks, back into the lights of the town, back across the bridge and out along the long A-road back to her village.

“We won’t hurt you,” said the cabby. “Just do as we say and you won’t get hurt.”

The passenger snickered.

Later, very quietly, Helen entered the water with a soft plop. They had tied weights to her body, concrete blocks they had found by the dockside, secured with a rope from the boot of the cab. She turned slowly as she sank to the bottom of the dock basin. The two men high-fived one another, laughing, then they drove back to the railway station, ready to meet the next train.

Back home Simon waited and waited. At half past nine he phoned the police.

At court the next day everyone was really fed up. A juror had not turned up, so the jury was dismissed and the old panel had to go back and sit and wait for hours in the pool of potential jurors, to see if they would be called again to form a jury for another case or whether they could go home. They sighed and grumbled.

The fraud case began again.


*****

About The Author

At the moment Shirley Bell is studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. Her poetry has been widely published  by Faber and Faber in Poetry Introduction 6, in Six the Versewagon Poetry Manual, Anvil New Poets and Outside The Chain of Hands, in a Wide Skirt pamphlet ‘Hanging Windows on the Dark’ and in magazines including Ambit, Poetry Review, The London Magazine, The Spectator and many others. A new pamphlet of her poetry and art work, “behind the glass”, will be available on Amazon in April 2013. You can contact her at shirley.bell@me.com.