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"We've got to make a decision," said No.1. "Did she or didn't she?"
"Did she what?" asked No.7.
"She said she didn't," said No.2.
"He said she did," said No.3.
No.2 pushed back her mannish hair with an impatient gesture. "As if we believed him!"
No.3 shrugged his shoulders. "Well, why not? He seems honest enough."
"He's a man, that's why!"
The foreman of the jury sighed. It was going to be a long night. It had already been a long day, from the formalities of swearing in and the reading of the indictment to the judge's far-from-helpful summing up. And after that, a decision. Such a simple decision, you'd have thought. In fact, that's just what he had thought. Such a tiny little decision half an hour at most. He'd reckoned without the rest of the jury. It had taken almost that long to decide whether to have tea or coffee, and whether they should ask for chocolate biscuits.
"Now look," he said, with forced patience. "Let's go over what we know and see if we can't sort it all out calmly and rationally."
"He raped her," said No.2. "He forced her to have sex."
The foreman groaned. He did so hate these feminists. Especially No.2. She seemed incapable of getting the simplest thing into whatever it was she was using instead of a brain. "We don't know that. All we know is that they had sex. They both admit that."
"All sex is rape." No.2 wasn't letting go.
Bloody hell! The foreman bit off his reply the middle-aged housewife at number 10 was gearing up to speak.
"Oh, I . . . really. . . I don't think . . . my husband . . ."
"That's right, you don't think!" No.2 still had the bit between her teeth. "Don't you know you've been brainwashed? You're exploited. Look at you. A mouse. A miserable mouse!"
"No, really, I'm quite happy, really . . ."
"Happy . . . !"
The men raised eyes to heaven and let them get on with it. The foreman wondered, not for the first time, why sex was ever supposed to have advantages over vegetative propagation.
The arrival of the tea and coffee put an end to it while twelve good men and true (if only it had been twelve good men, he thought) sorted out who got which and then worked out how to pass the sugar and then discovered that there were only twenty-three chocolate biscuits and then almost caused a mistrial by wandering out into the corridor to look for the missing one.
"We know they had sex," he said, carefully not looking at No.2, "because they both say so, but we don't know if it was consentingally . . . consental . . .whatever the word is."
"Consensual," said No.4, tapping his pipe on the edge of his chair.
"Consensual? Are you sure?"
"Quite sure. Consensual sex."
"Sounds more like both feeling the same thing" He supposed the man knew what he was talking about No.4 was some sort of teacher.
"Or consensual sexual intercourse, if you prefer."
"I'd prefer a good fuck," muttered No.5.
Nos. 6 to 8 guffawed, and No.2 bridled.
"Right now I'd prefer a good sleep," the foreman put in hastily to avert an explosion. "So, she might have consented, or she might not."
"She didn't!" That was No.2 of course.
"She might have done." That was No.3.
" . . . vowing she would ne'er consent, consented . . ." No.4 seemed to have gone off into a world of his own.
"Well, I do realise that young people nowadays . . ." This was the housewife. "Well, I mean, even so, they didn't even know each other. They'd hardly . . ."
"Oh, wouldn't they? You should see my students. At it like rabbits sometimes."
The foreman found himself considering the teacher's pipe in the nature of a Freudian whatnot. Just in time he stopped himself querying the implied promiscuity of rabbits. "I think we have to accept that . . . er . . . one-night stands . . . are far from unusual in today's world. Even if they'd only just met "
"They had," said No.3. "It's in the evidence. They met at that night club."
"All right. They still might have decided to . . . do it."
"Fuck!" said No.5. "It's called fucking."
"Or consensual sexual intercourse," added No.4.
"Aargh!" He felt like banging his head on the table. "It doesn't matter what it's called. You can call it New Age basketball for all I care. Or hoggy-woggy-willy-woo! Whatever it's called, they might have done it."
"They did do it," said No.3.
"She seems such a nice girl," said No.10. "It must be terrible for her, standing up in front of all those people and talking about . . . you know. She couldn't do that unless it really happened. No woman could. She'd be too ashamed."
"Bah, don't talk wet." For once No.2 was making sense. "If she hated him enough she could."
"But why should she hate him?" No.4 looked puzzled. "She'd only just met him."
"So he wasn't much cop in bed and she got pissed off," said No.5, "Or she wasn't much cop and he told her so."
" . . . hell hath no fury, like a woman scorned . . ."
"Or maybe she just hates men," suggested No.3.
"Possible," said the foreman. He tried not to look at No.2. "There are such women, certainly."
" . . . a misquotation actually . . . it should read, 'Heaven has no rage, like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorned'. . ."
"Magna Carta says you can't arrest anyone on a woman's say-so for the death of anybody apart from her husband," put in No.7. "Me and the wife were down in that Runnymede place last Saturday. I noticed that bit particularly, what with our Ethel. Chapter 54, it was. Or 55. Or maybe 45. One of them, anyhow."
They looked at him. "What's all that got to do with it?"
"Well, er . . ." No.7 frowned. "Well, she's a woman, isn't she? And he's not her husband actually, is he? I mean."
The foreman rubbed his forehead with both hands. This was impossible. "And nobody's dead either! Do let's stick to the issue!"
No.4 bit the stem of his unlit pipe. "He does have a point, you know. We need to be very sceptical of this woman's accusation."
"Sexist pig," exploded No.2. "Just like a man!"
The foreman sighed. He seemed to be spending half his time sighing. These people! Couldn't they ever keep from going off at a tangent?
"All right, all right, I admit it." No.4's pipe clattered across the varnished table, the foreman's glazed eyes following it absently. "We can be sceptical of the man's testimony too. All the same, women are undeniably more likely to make false and malicious accusations."
"Says Magna Carta!" insisted No.7. He nodded vigorously. "That's why it's there. The bit about ignoring them, I mean."
"Well, yes, in a manner of speaking." No.4 seemed disposed to lecture. "The phenomenon has indeed been recognised from antiquity, and probably owes its origin to the well-known physical weakness of the human female, as compared to the male. There are undoubtedly far more accusations of rape than actual occurrences, though naturally only a minority proceed to trial."
"Who's Ethel?" No.11 had been silent for so long they all stared, as if wondering where he'd suddenly appeared from. No one answered his question.
"So we're all agreed we've got to be careful," said the foreman, desperate to move things along. What a wonderful institution the jury would be, if it weren't for the people on it. You could say much the same for the whole flippin' world.
"I still say she's too nice a girl to do anything like that," said No.10. "You can tell just by looking at her."
"Oh, bugger that!" No.5 was scornful. "She's nothing but a lying bitch."
No.10 looked stubborn. "Well, I believe her, anyway, and you won't change my mind, whatever you say."
"Up straight!" No.2 thumped the table, making the empty cups rattle on their saucers. "Us girls must stick together."
The other women on the jury didn't agree. "I don't trust her," said No 9.
"She reminds my of my husband's cousin Emily," said No.12.
The foreman buried his face in his hands. Was there any way of getting these argumentative numbskulls to agree a verdict, or would they all be there till kingdom come?
The court was hushed, expectant, like weary travellers on Platform Five watching their train pulling into Crewe in the early hours of the morning, when even the naked bulbs in the waiting room seem to be nodding off and the fluorescent lights in the bookstall only make the emptiness bleaker. Legally, it was still the previous day, for the clocks had been stopped at one minute to midnight three hours ago. Biologically, it was a time in limbo, adrift in an out-of-body-like unreality.
"Members of the jury," intoned the judge, "have you reached a verdict?"
"We have, Your Honour."
Surely the whole court could hear his relief, thought the foreman. Surely they must share it! Now, just the reading of the verdict and they could all go home. To sleep, perchance not to dream. Bed, bed, bed, thrice blessed bed!
"In the matter of an alleged rape by one Joseph Naylor of Croxstead Green, Littlehamforth, against one Elizabeth Trite of the same parish, and in the charge of actual sexual assault against the first-named, and in the counter-charge of false and malicious accusation against the second-named, we find the evidence insufficient to convict. We hereby declare the case against both defendants not proven."
The foreman smiled. A decision at last. A decision to make no decision.
See also Afterword
© Paul Birch, 8th Sept. 1997.