Courtroom sketch
Courtroom sketch by lightest light via Flickr Creative Commons

Who said, “Ay, mum’s the word”?

Sexton to willow:

Who said, “Green dusk for dreams,

Moss for a pillow”?

Who said, “All Time’s delight

Hath she for narrow bed;

Life’s troubled bubble broken”? —

That’s what I said.

--Walter de la Mare


When the fiction gets in, the truth gets out, and that's the fact of it. That's the bottom line. It's all smoke and mirrors until the fiction starts. But let's begin with the facts. Which are these:

The journalist has established a routine. Just after the nine o'clock news, he goes live. He has a legal expert lined up and they chat about what happened in court the day before, what will happen during the day to come. Around 9:30 proceedings start and the station takes the live feed from the courtroom. The journalist nips out to the balcony for a cup of coffee and a cigarette.

The journalist's problem is that he doesn't know. There is so much that he doesn't know. He doesn't know how long the adjournments will last. Or when they will happen. The prosecution has a tendency to ask for leave to consult. Suddenly the journalist is live on air. No one to talk to. The journalist has a law degree. It's not like he's stupid or anything. He's equipped. He's a professional. But the unexpected breaks mean he has to keep on his toes. He has to keep it tidy. Trouble is, the story gets to him, he can't help thinking aloud. He stops being a journalist and starts giving his opinion.

Thing is, says the journalist, this is an African story. Never mind his legs, the guy is an invader. He is a colonial prince. That's why he had a loaded weapon. Because what invaders fear is invasion. Invasion like, getting personal with them. In the dead of night. So they arm themselves. But that's just me. That's just my opinion. We can never know. Unless someone, somewhere, can answer this question: what were the princess's last words? What did she say? You tell me. Call 707...

People are listening to this stuff. All over the world. They are waiting for the cracks where the truth gets out. Gets in. Gets about. The international news channels have dedicated teams broadcasting from the capitol. But the journalist's station is the only one that is streaming continuous audio from the courtroom. People at work around the globe have discreet headphones on and the feed open in a browser tab behind the spreadsheet for the AGM or the figures on the new social media impact study. They rely on the journalist to keep them amused during the breaks.

One of the journalist's tricks when faced with dead air is to log on to Twitter and search #PrinceTrial, read out the comments.

I'm obsessed! When H is talking I feel so sorry for him, but how he can be innocent? #headvheart #PrinceTrial

H is going down! #PrinceTrial

The journalist does not read the tasteless comments about the prince's disability. He avoids tweets about the defence being unsteady on its prosthetics.

Citizens, the journalist notes, take sides. As in a sporting contest. They groan when there is a delay.

Court adjourns and so does my entertainment. #PrinceTrial

This EXPERT gonna end up crying He's starting to not "remember" things. #PrinceTrial

Can't they bring on H again? This expert guy is boring me! LOL. #PrinceTrial

In truth, the expert shares a crucial quality with the prince: he is unable to directly answer a direct question. He is the enemy of the simple declarative sentence. He has been called by the defence, this expert, to testify on sounds in the night.

If a witness, he says, were to categorically state that that is his opinion, then that would be the categorical opinion of the witness.

The expert's name is Polonius.

Polonius? Is this some kind of joke? #PrinceTrial

Bastard deserve to die. He knew she wuz there. #PrinceTrial

H shot her on purpose. This expert lies. #PrinceTrial

The expert does not agree.

If you consider the accused's faults carefully, he says, they are only the taints of liberty, the flash and outbreak of a fiery mind.

This is the defence. One of the defences. The prince, of fiery mind, feared the stranger, the other, armed, scaling the walls. This is justified, the defence argues. Just look at the statistics, the assaults, the break-ins, the murders.

It is the state's case that the prince and princess had an argument. There was a falling out. The prince became angry. The princess, fearful of assault, fled to her bower. The prince, with intention to kill, fired fatal shots through the door.

The prosecutor stares at the accused.

Wherefore, he asks, would you do this?

I object, my lady, says the advocate for the defence. The prince did not intend. He heard the noise and was startled. He fired involuntarily, my lady. As a result of an automatic reflex. He was disposed to do what he did, my lady. He could not help himself.

The judge is addressed as my lady. She is quiet, dignified, the judge. She listens and she makes notes. When something is not clear, she asks, politely, for clarification.

My lady, says the prosecutor, the prince is skilled with a pistol. He fired with purpose. He has testified that he wished to protect the princess. Therefore he did intend to kill someone behind the door. The question applies.

He turns to the accused.

Wherefore, sir, would you do this? Why did you not cry out? If you were protecting her, why did you not ascertain where she was?

I can't remember.

The other witness is dead. You owe it to her to remember.

It was a mistake, says the prince. I was mistaken. He weeps.

Oh prince. Oh my prince.

I wished to defend her, he says. I heard a sound. I thought there was someone in her chamber. In her bower.

He is unable to speak. He sits with his head between his knees. He retches. An orderly brings him a blue plastic bucket.

#PrinceTrial What's with the bucket? LOL

The expert's evidence goes on for days. It is, as we have established, about sounds heard in the night. The night in question. Screams and gunshots, both disputed. Distant neighbours heard a woman screaming and then the sound of shooting. The defence claims it was the prince who screamed when he understood what he had done. In order to free the princess, he struck the door of the chamber, producing the sounds misinterpreted by the neighbours as gunshots. The expert conducted special experiments, he says, to prove this.

When I was striking the door, upon its lower panels, I was striking in a striking posture. But my lady, a shot refers to a gun. With ball and powder. This was a strike. In my attempt to assist the court, I took up the club and struck the door in a striking posture. I was investigating the nature of the sound, my lady.

Are you a sound expert?

I'm sorry?

Are you a sound expert?

I hope that my evidence is sound.

That is not the question. I ask: are you an expert in decibels, sound?

I am not, my lady.

Yet you claim that the sounds were similar. By what reasoning?

The expert mumbles. The advocate for the defence whispers with his team. The court adjourns so that they can consult with the expert. The journalist is live. He glances at his Twitter feed.

Is this expert real though??? What a joke. #PrinceTrial

I done tweeting about this bullshit. #expert #PrinceTrial

He done her cause she didn't done him. #murder #PrinceTrial

In his mind's eye, the journalist sees the princess screaming for help. A portion of the door, near the handle, explodes outwards. The projectile moves through, black talons unfurling, blossoming blades amid a bloom of splinters. It's too fast for the princess to see. She is aware of a mist of blood. That is all. Then, on her retina, but hardly seen now, you can't call it seeing anymore, as she falls, but it's there, burnt on her retina: the image of her own brain matter, atomized. Flowering across the chamber. Blossoming in her bower. All red, her bower now. All splashed and splattered. She turns, falling. She's fallen. A fallen princess. She's gone but for her breathing. Which is purely mechanical. Which moves, mechanically, back and forth, a wisp of lint adhering to her lip, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

It's in now. The fiction. There's no getting out of it. Even the judge knows that. She bangs her gavel upon the desk. She raises her voice.

Order in court. Who speaks there?

It is the citizenry, my lady. The citizens. They listen all around the world. And they would testify.

Order in court!

She wears her rue with a difference, the dead girl.

Order! Who said that?

It has been placed on the record, my lady. Never again will he lay his head in her lap. Never never never never never never never never.

Objection, my lady. How is this relevant? Who called these witnesses? We have had no warning.

The sexual relation of the accused and the deceased, says the judge, is not pertinent. You must rephrase that. Explain the relevance of her lap, his head.

I will come to it, my lady. We must bear witness. It is important. It reveals us. It throws light on what we are. A man stands before us in the dock.

He stands, you say?

I object, my lady. The prince does not have that luxury.

There is laughter in the court. It cannot be borne, this tragedy. There must be relief in laughter. The judge does not approve. Her gavel comes down. To no effect.


My lady, will you give me leave to lay my head in your lap?

I beg your pardon?

It is what the accused said, my lady. It is on the record. He asked the princess if she would give him leave. It is the state's argument that she refused him. On the night in question. This is what caused them to fall out. This is the contention of the state.

Howl howl howl howl howl.

Order in court! Who is this witness?

It is the concerned parent, my lady. The parent, concerned. It is the father of the deceased.

Objection, my lady. Howling is not relevant. It is an expression of emotion only. Justice demands that we stick to the facts.

Justice? He kneels there, the father, with his bloodied daughter in his arms. He howls. Ophelia, Cordelia, it matters not. It's all the same. When the truth gets out. Gets in. Gets about.

He speaks, the bereaved father. Listen:

This lint moves. Her breath moves it.

There is no lint. No breath.

But there are witnesses who have testified. There was falling out at tennis. Give me up the truth.

I object, my lady. What is happening is unconstitutional. It makes a mockery of our legal system.

But she breathes, says the father. Look.

If she lives, my lady, it is a chance which does redeem all sorrows that ever I have felt.

Who said that? Who speaks now in my court?

We know that voice, my lady. We'd know that voice anywhere. That is the voice of the mother. The dead girl's mother.

My lady, such sorrows cannot be redeemed in this world. Redemption is in any case a commercial notion. The loss of a daughter cannot be monetized, therefore there can be no redemption. I have gone through the case law, my lady. There is no precedent. The girl is dead. All time's delight hath she for narrow bed.

She sleeps? Is that what you mean?

I cannot know, my lady.

What did she say? What were her words?

Life's troubled bubble broken.

Speak louder. I cannot hear you.

Life's troubled bubble broken…

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