Title: The Trial

Author: Victoria Feltham

In: Sport 11: Spring 1993

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, November 1993, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 11: Spring 1993

Victoria Feltham — The Trial

page 83

Victoria Feltham

The Trial

On the day of the trial Fenella Gilchrist and I are making our way up City Road carrying Stephen Wilson’s shoes in a brown paper bag. Well, they’re Roderick Wilson’s shoes really. We’ve stolen them from his brother Stephen, in the interests of securing a conviction. We are the prosecution team.

Every Monday we go out for lunch although we suspect, actually we know, that we’re not meant to. Sometimes we walk down York Place and Tennyson Street, past the upper edge of Tech, then the Catholic schools and the Priory, past Otago Girls’ High where my sister Deirdre goes, and down View Street to the Onslow milkbar, for tomato soup and hot buttered toast. More often we climb City Road through the Town Belt, past the swings on the brow of the hill, and the comfortable houses with flowery gardens, to the Chinese fish-and-chip shop on Highgate, next to the fire station. Both routes demand one steep haul and give us lunch for a shilling; both routes allow us to sample the pleasures of the illicit, although the route down town proves the more dangerous.

For instance, one day we asked each of the Tech girls we met if she could please ‘Tell Laura I love her’. Not recognising the Hit Parade refrain when it was subtracted from its music they were agog with ‘Whaddaya mean?’ and even ‘I’m sorry?’ We didn’t stop this game until the fourth or fifth girl whacked me forcefully across the face. Sensible girl, picking me. Although we’re of an age I reach Fenella Gilchrist’s shoulder.

Fenella Gilchrist is everything I’m not, physically speaking. I think of her as Fenella Gilchrist to differentiate her from Fenella Harding who does look very like me except for her propensity to run discoloured yuck from her nose in the winter. Fen Harding is short and softly freckle-faced and has light dark brown hair. She and I could be mistaken for each other and for any ten-year-old girl anywhere.

Not so Fenella Gilchrist, who is tall, smoothly muscular, evenly tanned and blonde haired. She has an aristocratic profile, a haughty look, a dancer’s movements and sophisticated legs. I, who’ve just learnt to walk, after years of skipping, hopping and running, am surprised that my affection for Fenella is returned. I wonder if I’m the best of a bad lot or if she genuinely page 84 appreciates moderate cleverness and immoderate chat.

Last year, when her family were still in their old house, I did teach her to play a tune on the piano with both hands when her parents set a sort of test to see if she should have lessons. ‘Learn to play something from one of your friends,’ they said. ‘And we’ll see.’

She is the unspoken leader of our Ballet Club too, made up of Julia, Elly, Mary, her, me, Cissy MacKnight when she’s not away in England, and the other Fenella. We meet on Sunday afternoons at someone’s house and practise ballet concerts of our own devising. Not that I do any devising. I just dance what I’m told, slightly differently each time. I’ve been taken to lots of ballet at His Majesty’s and spent half a year at barefoot dance classes where I discovered I could hold my foot high above my head so I’m not completely useless.

Fenella, who has the largest sitting room, and a proper radiogram, choreographs Hansel and Gretel, and a twenty-four-hour Dance of the Hours in which I am Dusk and she is Dawn. Julia and Elly, Night and Noon, also concoct a moody duet, between a girl and a skeleton, danced to Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, which I haven’t heard before. Otherwise Fenella is very much in charge. She gives me Gretel in the face of discontented murmurs from the others.

She and I play on our own after school too, always at her house since she moved to Maori Hill. When we were first friends I could walk to her house in Pacific Street in a few minutes, crossing just two roads. She lived on the perimeter of my patch which otherwise contained all boys. Now she lives further away in a wide leafy street which, even to my determined-not-to-be-impressed eye, is very grand indeed.

Grendon Street meanders like an English river. Fenella’s house stands stately and reposed on the outer bank of one bend. The drive in front of the house mimics the meander. We cycle incessantly, along the street, in the lower gate, round the drive in its sweep past the garages, the house and the mulberry tree on the lawn, out the top gate and round the road again to the lower gate. Fenella can cycle through this enchanted place with no hands.

I drink the beauty of what she takes for granted and argue bitterly with her when she tells me, with a kingly hand gesture, that her surveyor father plans to build flats where the mulberry tree stands.

Whenever I practise taking one hand off the handlebars myself I fall off her sister Pippa’s bike so we lend rhythm to our labours by chanting songs as we pedal: ‘She SET her sister’s HAIR on fire, Sing RICKety-tickety-TIN. page 85 She SET her sister’s HAIR on fire, and AS the smoke and FLAME rose higher, DANCED around the FUNEral pyre, PLAYing the vioLIN’.

Then, throats hoarse, bodies happy, we return to the house to listen to the true emphases of Tom Lehrer, on the radiogram. Fenella’s sister, Pippa (another of my doubles), her little brother, Roger, and her glamorous mother, Lou, are never about. Listening to Tom Lehrer’s cheerful, pessimistic malice-put-to-music transports us to the world of adults, mercifully adult-free, and we are happy.

Chugging up City Road, right now, with the increasing burden of Stephen or Roderick Wilson’s stolen shoes, is another kettle of fish altogether.

‘We shouldn’t’ve taken them, really,’ I say.

‘They were cheating,’ says Fenella, nonchalantly swinging the bag of shoes harder.

‘Well, not really. Our having to tell each other the evidence is the problem.’ (I have only recently been introduced, by name, to the gerund, the verbal noun. I am drunk with it.)

‘And Stephen was so upset when we said we’d got a cast of his footprints.’

Fenella brightens. ‘Doesn’t he look disgusting when he’s crying?’

She’s right. Stephen Wilson is the most disgusting boy that ever lived, in everything he does, but he lives near me and I am deeply fond of him, having no brothers myself.

Besides, I’m grateful to him because he regularly did number one in the gutter on the way home from school, when we were six (and just big enough to walk home without supervision, though still little enough to hang around together). Without this casual display of male effectiveness I’d’ve been limited, in my knowledge of men’s private bits, to the scrupulously hazy vision of my father through the shower curtain. Dad in the shower. I used to be led in to look, once he was in place, so to speak, and led out before he emerged; and I wouldn’t’ve dreamt of raising any objections to the scope of the lesson. As I say, at the time I could rely on Stephen.

I try to marshal all this for Fenella.

‘You know we’ve known each other since before we were born? His parents were really close to mine and now his mother is married to Dad’s best friend, Ron.’

‘I know Ron Gould. I know all this. Anyway he’s a gruesome fat crybaby.’

‘Oh, I know. I agree with you. I mean, he looks as though he’s talking page 86 with his mouth full even when he hasn’t got any food in it. All spitty and spluttery and half chewed words. And he does talk with his mouth full. When we were littler, my mother would say "You look just like Stephen Wilson" to make us give it up. I’ll tell you something else, he can’t even handle a knife and fork properly. Oh Fenella, I feel sick.’

Probably I’m just empty. The fish-and-chip shop is around the next bend.

‘The perfect criminal, really,’ Fenella adds, distracting me from my easy treachery by reminding me of our present felony. ‘Here, you take the shoes for a bit.’

‘It’s odd then, that Francis Churchill’s the other defendant. He’s not the perfect criminal.’ But Fenella isn’t listening. She’s sniffing appreciatively at the savoury smells of fish-and-chips.

Our class, Standard Four, is mounting a Supreme Court trial to complete our lessons on New Zealand’s judiciary. All the roles have been allocated by the teacher. Some of them fit almost too well. The charge is one of burglary or housebreaking; the offenders, Stephen and Francis, are electing trial by jury. Everyone thinks Francis should’ve been made Judge, seeing his father is the Professor of Law at the university. The Judge is Dennis Archer whom we call Coo-Coo, in imitation of his talking through his nose and once mispronouncing ‘cuckoo’ during reading aloud. Poor boy. We never referred to him at all until we had such a damning name for him.

The teacher has explained to me and Fenella that our case is to rest on properly argued and substantiated evidence that relates exactly to the charge. No rabbits out of hats permitted. In a real court trial the Defence would be entitled to know the Police case against the accused, all the evidence that will be brought up in court, in fact. We must provide equivalent facts for Francis and Stephen’s lawyers, Warwick and Nigel.

Well, we think that’s what the teacher said, and we had a piece of luck soon afterwards when Fenella spotted Stephen playing in the playground in bare feet (in May, in Dunedin). She went hunting for his discarded Clarks sandals and, when she found them, she traced around them and called the result a cast of his footprints, found at the scene of the crime.

‘Our case against Stephen will be supported by Police evidence that footprints have been found at the scene of the burglary, in the flowerbed outside the house,’ Fenella announced to Warwick and Nigel, the day before yesterday.

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‘That exactly match his feet,’ I added.

Warwick and Nigel, still coming to terms with the good fortune of having the Prosecution’s case turned over to them, bit by bit, before the trial, were all admiration at our conniving cleverness. Their eyes sparkled. So did Stephen’s, but on the way to tears.

Francis, on the other hand, was furious. All the five Churchill boys dress as mice, in dark grey cable-knit jerseys, dark grey socks and dark grey flannel shorts. Now his nostrils flared, his mouth began to wiffle and he looked as though he might bite someone, as well. It wasn’t fair; we were picking on Stephen as usual; we won everything by unscrupulous means, including the competition for the title of the class newspaper, and its design. Our title (Rainbow Express) and its multi-coloured execution had been sentimental and inferior to the boys’ effort which was lettered in Medieval script copied from the Otago Daily Times; well, we wouldn’t benefit from this latest meanness. He’d think of a method of quashing us. And so on. And so on.

Francis’s ethereal, bony vigour impressed me. The outraged mouse was no longer visible. Usually, except for his angelic face, he has all the physical charm of a rotary clothes line. His knees are permanently bent and his feet turn out when he walks, rather stiffly, like an emaciated, geriatric chimp. Now he had the fire and eloquence of one of those Roman orators. I longed to stroke his fair, choir boy hair and say I’m sorry. I longed to grab hold of turbulent, tearful Stephen, too, a heap of mud and lava on the floor, and tell him it’s only a game, and we’re friends, aren’t we? Not that I would’ve.

Fenella was unrepentant. ‘These footprints match his shoes exactly,’ she hissed.

‘We’ll see about that, you, you . . . bitches,’ retorted Francis.

Now this was really exciting. The only time Deirdre ever called me a bitch, the only time I’d heard the word for that matter, our mother manhandled her into the bathroom (against all my protestations that I didn’t mind at all, that I liked being called a bad word) and washed her mouth out with soap and water. We all three got very wet and Deirdre was screaming and flailing and red in the face throughout. Goodness knows how my mother got any soapy liquid in. I wish I could remember if I’d told on Deirdre or if Mummy overheard. I’m fairly sure she overheard. I wouldn’t tell on DeeDee. My mother and father are very down on bad language. And bad temper.

Yet here was Francis Churchill’s pretty face, angrily opening its delicate mouth and saying that word almost nonchalantly.

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He hasn’t spoken to us again during the remaining days before the trial. I’ve watched him organising his own defence and restoring Stephen’s sense of proportion. I’ve watched them in a huddle, concocting a way to block us but I haven’t been able to overhear or work out what their plan is.

And then, this morning (the court case is to be held first thing after lunch) Fenella took one look at their smug faces, went to look in Stephen’s school bag and found what she expected to find, Roderick Wilson’s Clarks sandals.

‘If Stephen’s going to wear different shoes, his big brother’s shoes, at the trial we’ll have to stop him, won’t we?’ said Fenella, to me. ‘He has to match the real footprints.’

‘Oh, Fenella,’ I squeaked, ‘remember Mole to Ratty? "Let me only just find a door-mat," says you to yourself, "And my theory is proved!"? You’re Ratty, Fenella. You’re terrific, you really are.’

Secretly I was shattered by her efficiency, although I’m used to others exhibiting mental organisation superior to mine.

We agreed we’d steal the spare shoes and take them with us at lunchtime. Stephen will be forced to wear his own shoes at the trial and match our prints. That’s what we’ve done, we’ve brought them with us to the fish-and-chip shop.

‘Where will we hide them, when we get back?’ she muses on another chip. Mine don’t taste too wonderful.

‘You know, I really think we’d better give them back,’ I say. ‘We’ve shown we can win the point. You know what I mean. Stephen’s going to cry again. And we can probably win without them. The whole class thinks they did it and we’ve got good arguments and witnesses and things.’

In her studied silence I hear myself failing to convince her.

Anyway, it sorts itself out because we’re caught coming in the top gate, by the teacher who is lying in wait for us, flanked by a haughty Francis, a blubbering Stephen, and an audience of Nigel and Warwick, deeply amused.

We are careful not to look discomfited. I hand back the shoes that will secure Stephen’s alibi. Fenella has the presence of mind to say ‘Cheats’ and stick her tongue out, even before Mr Hughes, our teacher, is out of range.

Me, I’m glad we’ve handed back the shoes. I’m very relieved that we don’t have to watch poor Stephen crying any more. He is a fat, unkempt boy, barely in control of himself even when he’s cheerful. For that matter, I’ve seen his tears turn from sticky wallowings to terrifying rages of page 89 demented hysteria, more than once. Rage is exotic but his is near madness. And every time I encounter it I am sucked back into the unbearable sight of him howling and screaming down their stairs on the morning after Roderick’s ninth birthday. I can see him so vividly, although it’s four years ago.

Deirdre and Roderick turned nine within a month of each other, near the end of Stephen’s and my first year at school. Friends since they were born DeeDee and Rod were still close at nine, so she went to his birthday party and even stayed the night.

Next morning Deirdre and Ruth, the mother, were in the kitchen making breakfast in their pajamas; Stephen and his little sister Robin, who was three, were still upstairs because Robin was sick in bed with a cold. I don’t know where Roderick was, outside maybe.

There wasn’t a father because he’d been killed in a light plane crash doing search and rescue in the Matukituki valley, a couple of years before. My mother says that Robert Wilson always maintained he wouldn’t see forty, and he was thirty-nine years and eleven months old when he died. He’d survived World War Two as a pilot, too. Gillian was renamed Robin, in his honour, after he died. She was barely a toddler then.

Anyway, Deirdre and Ruth, the mother, were in the kitchen when Stephen came rushing down the stairs very distressed, out of control, screaming and crying and determined to push past them and find his way outside. They could hear his sobbing as they ran up the stairs to see what had started him off.

What they found was Robin on fire, all over. They rolled her on the floor and used Deirdre’s clothes, her beautiful all-wool, grey, pleated skirt and her red wool cardigan, to smother the flames.

Apparently the little girl had been shivery with her high temperature and must’ve sat down on the ledge of the gas fire, in her nightie, to warm herself up, but no one knows exactly because there was no way to get any sense out of poor Stephen. He was only five himself.

Robin was in hospital for three weeks with the worst sort of burns, I can never remember whether it is first degree or third degree. Then she died. I don’t think there was ever much hope for her.

I can remember the day Mummy came home to tell us she’d died and Deirdre held her hand up flat like a traffic officer stopping traffic and said, ‘Don’t tell us. Don’t say anything. I know. There are only three Wilsons now, aren’t there?’

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Apparently, when I said my prayers that night I said the usual ones that I say every night, which are ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ and ‘Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’, and then I said, ‘Dear God, please look after Robin in heaven because she’s new.’ I could see an airy pale pink, impersonal room—empty, rather like our junk room if it was all cleaned up; and Robin was alone in it, sitting alone in the waiting room. Like waiting to see the headmaster. Only she didn’t know anybody.

Otherwise, all I can remember is not being allowed to see Deirdre’s skirt and jersey when they were brought home here on the way to claiming fire insurance.

And the sight of Stephen on the stairs, stumbling down from his fiery, dying sister.

All in all, I’m very glad that the whole issue of those shoes is behind us. The prospect of a court trial in which I am Deputy Prosecutor seems trivial in comparison.

And, of course, it all proceeds swimmingly. Coo-Coo makes a petulant Judge, squinting through his glasses and always taking the boys’ side; Francis and Stephen make great burglars; Julia is recovered from her annoyance at being only the Chief Juror, and makes subtle contributions on our side; Warwick and Nigel do well with hopeless witnesses; and Fenella and I remember all our points and brave the teacher’s continued disapproval to secure a conviction, even without the matching footprints, against Stephen.

But not against Francis. He wasn’t even there. Francis Churchill is acquitted. Stephen Wilson is found guilty and Stephen Wilson cries.