“What’s wrong?” Leonard heard Marianna say, and her voice was coarse and suffocated by the pillows she spoke into. He rolled around and looked at his half-sleeping wife fondly, watching anxiously because he wanted to talk but he didn’t want to actively wake her up. Perhaps she sensed his nervous energy, because she shortly raised her head from the pillow and winced at him with heavy lidded eyes.
“We can talk about it in the morning,”
“Really? After all of your fidgeting, twisting and turning you want to talk about it tomorrow?” She asked, clearly unimpressed with his attempt at being considerate.
“You know me, when I’ve left something unfinished I can’t stop obsessing over it until I’ve sorted it out.”
“But I though today was quite productive?” She yawned as she raised herself onto her elbows, and turned on the lamp with a lazy outward swing of her left arm. They both winced at the sudden brightness.
“We need to buy more lightbulbs, using lamps is stupid and lazy,” she commented amidst another yawn, and Leonard found himself yawning as well.
“Today was productive but I never got around to replying to Alby’s request, I ignored it and I never ignore commissions…”
“Well that’s easy to fix; hop on the laptop, send him an email and then we can get back to bed. Sorted!”
“Alright let me grab the laptop, actually can you pass it to me? It’s on the table,” he queried as he pointed it out to her and she handed it over to him. He popped it open, typed in the password and opened up his email account in their chosen browser. He dimmed the screen slightly as it was garishly bright due to the tepid lighting of their bedside lamp. Marianna watched him expectantly, and he could feel her glare switch from casual interest to mild annoyance as he dallied with the email. He typed sentence after sentence before pressing the backspace, and then typing another one before selecting all of the text and deleting it in one censorious swoop.
“I was going to tell him that I can’t do it, but he’s been good to me and I don’t really have a good reason to turn him down. Plus, we’ve been working on this textbook together for some time so I wouldn’t want to leave this project unfinished.”
“Ok…so you’re going to accept it?”
“I think so, give me a second to type this up. Do you mind checking it over before I send it?” He asked as he typed away and she shrugged nonchalantly in reply. Once he had finished, he cleared his throat and read aloud:
“Dear Alby. I can take on this assignment straight away, and I shouldn’t need any longer than usual to complete it. However I did know some of the people involved in this case, so please let me know if that’s a problem. Thanks. Leonard.”
“Perfect! Now can we get back to bed?”
“Definitely, thanks a lot,” he replied, feeling infinitely more relaxed than when his head had first touched the cool, blue pillow. He started to find his groove within the mattress again, and allowed his eyes to steady and close of their own accord. He heard the click of the lamp as he filtered his thoughts, leaving only ridiculous and pleasant things such as his eventual lottery win. However just as his eyes had settled behind his eyelids, and that gooey stillness had restrained his limbs, Marianna suddenly turned on the lamp.
“Why did this stress you out so much?” She asked with an almost angry expression on her face, or else one might have assumed she was angry had they not realised it was tiredness which hardened her eyes and wrinkled the arch of her nose.
“I’m not really sure, I just felt like it was weird writing about people I used to know. Normally I just read up on the case, put it down on paper and then that was that-”
“But you don’t think you’ll be able to move on from this one do you? Then why on earth are you doing it?”
“Because it’s already become something that I can’t ignore.” He replied as he rolled onto his back in order to look up at the white ceiling, and it suddenly occurred to him that he’d never seen a ceiling painted any other colour.
“I guess I can understand your hesitation now, you’re afraid of things becoming personal. Then again this might all be for nothing because if Alby has a problem with you knowing these people, he’ll have to offer the assignment to someone else,”
“We’ll find out in the morning if he does.”
“Sure,” she uttered drearily before turning off the lamp again, however they continued aimlessly chatting to each other as neither was quite sleepy enough to fall asleep. Eventually their chatter flowed back to the most pressing matter at hand, Alby’s commission.
“What happened in the case, you said it was manslaughter right?”
“All I can remember is that a friend of mine’s son died of an asthma attack. A boy I used to go to school with was arrested for it, because it was somehow his fault. I can’t really remember all of the details to be honest because by that point we swam in different circles, so I wasn’t really close enough to her to ask her for a break down. I’ll just have to do my research to figure out what specifically happened.”
“So one person you used to know effectively killed somebody else you used to know? Ugh gives me Goosebumps, there’s something extremely unsettling about murder.”
“I know right! Hence my discomfort,”
“Well at least it’s not a bad case…”
“A child died Marianna!”
“Oh don’t get all high and mighty, you know what I meant by that. All crimes are horrible, and all deaths are tragic. I’m just saying that at least it wasn’t an especially gruesome murder or sexually motivated or whatever you know?”
“Right,” Leonard acquiesced as the two finally, and quite rapidly, fell asleep. They were folded together at the legs and split from their waists upwards, much like a distended tuning fork. Leonard’s arm hung off of the bed as both of Marianna’s cradled and propped up her own cheeks.
Once the morning had arrived Leonard found himself alone in bed as was usual, he was a notoriously heavy sleeper and so Mariana’s early mornings rarely stirred him. Leonard stretched and yawned as he stumbled towards his computer, before suddenly coming to full wakefulness with the conspicuous ‘1’ that blinked atop his inbox. Alby had replied. Leonard eagerly clicked on the email, however what greeted him was an anti-climactically short and pithy response.
Don’t worry about that it’s not a problem at all. Also we’re waiting on a few other essays to be formatted and edited, so you actually have a few more days than you normally would!
He was dumbstruck after reading it, and felt somewhat silly as though he had over exaggerated the entire situation. Maybe he had? After all people died all the time even if some of those people happened to be children, and some of those deaths happened to be murders; it happened all the time. However, this trail of thought only served to further dismay Leonard as he felt quite uneased by his attempt at normalising the case of R Vs Ayodele. It seemed bizarre and unhealthy that he would try to treat such a thing as normal or commonplace, regardless of whether it was. Leonard wondered if it was normal. He wondered deeply and as he cleaned up their bed and slumped in the shower, the same ponderous expression marked his face as suds skimmed his eyes and the toothpaste spumed his lips. A sudden curiosity and eagerness possessed him and, as he ate his breakfast in front of his laptop, he ran a quick Google search on the number of childhood deaths over the last year. He scanned the numbers before deciding that skimming around the issue wasn’t going to eliminate his sudden discomfort, and so he rationalised his task to himself in the following way:
People die. Some of those people happen to be children. Human history tells us some of those people have to be children. Lawyers help to ensure that such deaths are not mysterious, and that where human interaction has ended a life, proper steps can be taken to prevent similar deaths occurring in the future. Writing a paper on the death of a child is not exploitative, it is helping to prevent further, and similar, circumstances by preparing future lawyers.
He wasn’t entirely convinced by his arguments but felt pacified and had lost the immediacy of his discomfort; it was still there but it was now boring and stale. Unless he willed it, he wouldn’t feel it. Satisfied he started researching the case of R Vs Ayodele so that he might use it as a case study for his manslaughter assignment. Manslaughter. So it might have actually been an accident after all, a gross, complicated accident but an accident all the same. This realisation helped to further still the swirling sickness he had felt since receiving the commission, and he set to researching it with his acquired sense of professional disinterest.
Leonard had a very specific method when carrying out his research, and it was a method he had developed during university when he had used to write bespoke essays for other students. It had been a mildly immoral form of self-employment, that had paid better than minimum wage at the time. Nevertheless, what he found as a young plagiariser was that ideas tended to bleed together, or rather, that essay writing was a balancing act. The researcher had to utilise the ideas of others without also stealing their thrust and energy, whilst simultaneously using them honestly without warping them to suit their own interests. This task was further complicated by the fact that he had often found himself writing multiple essays, in multiple disciplines, at the same time. Two concurrent ‘commissions’ particularly put this balancing act to the test, and over the course of a weekend he had to write an essay on Skinner’s theory of behaviourism for both a philosophy and a psychology undergraduate. The method he used to write these essays was perfected on that balmy October night, as he was warmed by hot coffee and tomato soup and his nose hung heavy with the cold. The first step was to look at a relevant essay on the subject, whilst avoiding the source material if possible. He managed to find an essay in an anthology that lent itself to both student’s questions, and printed two copies. He highlighted all the relevant areas in green for the philosopher, and in yellow for the psychologist. Following this he then turned each highlighted section into a single sentence which answered each question, before expanding each of these sentences into a paragraph. The final step was to thread these disparate paragraphs into a single essay, and by this point he had a number stock phrases which made the soldering even quicker. All in all, this method of essay writing usually guaranteed a 2:2, and allowed him to write three to five essays in the time it would take most students to finish one. If there was a drawback to the method, it was that he rarely remembered any of the curious facts he had picked up throughout the course of writing the essay, nevertheless it had served him well. It was in this way that Leonard spent the next hour as he broke apart legal documents and local newspaper reports on the matter, before reconstructing them as a unique and original essay on manslaughter. He began by isolating a number of key sentences which he could then turn into paragraphs, and these key sentences were as follows:
- Paul (Paulie) Ayodele kidnapped Karim Goss with the understanding that he could use the act to force a confession from Marta Goss, regarding her knowledge of his abuse at the hands of his father.
- Karim Goss died of an asthma attack whilst being held against his will in Paulie Ayodele’s cellar.
- The case was ruled as an act of involuntary manslaughter due to P. Ayodele’s lack of knowledge about K. Goss’ medical condition.
- The defence tried to argue that K. Goss would not have been at risk had his asthma been properly managed by M. Goss.
- Ayodele was twenty years old at the time of the offense and so was granted custody for life, with a minimum term of fourteen years.
Sentence number five caused Leonard to stop and think about the consequences of a fourteen-year stint in jail, especially at the age of twenty. This of course meant that Paulie would be thirty-four years old, at the youngest, whenever he was deemed fit and healthy to return to mainstream society. Indeed, he would still be in prison now, doing whatever it is that prisoners happen to do to while away the time. He cupped his hands over his face as he billowed his cheeks with the shock of the thought, after all as a young father he couldn’t imagine missing the next fourteen years of Marley’s life. He thought about the young man he had been at twenty and that person had been an indecisive, embryo of a man. There had been days when he had a bloated confidence and knowledge well beyond his years, and others when sitting in a café alone was the most embarrassing thing he could do. Had he done anything back then to warrant an arrest? At the least his career as a second class plagiariser certainly warranted expulsion from his university, and he suddenly grasped the enormity of being caught in the act. Leonard swivelled in his seat in a bid to settle his Tetris-like thoughts, and to ensure that the right shapes fell into the right holes.
The death of a child is a serious offense even if it is an accident, even if it happens every day, even if it was a young, young man who caused it; it is a serious offense all the same. It is not comparable to helping a few lazy undergrads cheat. Imagine if Marley had been Karim? What is fourteen years in prison compared to death before one’s fourteenth birthday?
Leonard had been busier than usual as of late because his little family had been planning to go on a holiday. It had always been a dream of his to visit a theme park as a youngster, and to have had a vivid memory of seeing the mascots as living creatures and not people in costumes. Indeed, Leonard had a childishness to his character that disposed him kindly to being an engaging father, but also made him ill-suited to long term planning, saving and budgeting his income. Moreover, whilst Mariana managed a team of trainers and an even larger database of clients and contractors, she was as equally oblivious when it came to their financial affairs. As such the two had made an agreement that they would save up, book some time off of work and take Marley to Disneyland Paris in the summer. As Leonard finished off his third commission of the day, and twenty-first of the week, it was incredibly tempting to buy himself a new pair of jeans for his troubles. However, whilst he couldn’t bring himself to do it, he similarly couldn’t entirely surrender this rogue thought and so indecisively closed the tab on his browser, without taking the jeans out of his virtual basket. He checked the time and realised that Marley would be finishing school shortly and so he dashed outside of his house and into the car to pick up his son. As he drove through the familiar route, he found himself both enjoying and despising the sedate pace of family life. It bothered him to know that every day at two fifty-five he would be in this car racing to pick up his son from school, and that every day his son would skip into the front seat to which he would ask:
“How’s your day Marley?” To which his son would then reply,
“It’s ok, but the maths was hard,” and then he would look at his son with that same curious mix of bewilderment that he could create a living, breathing creature that looked strangely like himself but also like somebody else. He loved his son greatly and also felt proud of the boy he had brought into the world, but the routine, the obligation, the responsibility? There were times when these things both terrified and horrified him in equal measure. His son reached into the glove compartment and pulled out Leonard’s phone, and within seconds he was playing a game. Leonard smiled a half smile as he took his son home.
Once they had had arrived back at their apartment Leonard started cooking their dinner as soon as his coat was removed, and this was because he had received a text message from Mariana saying that she would be leaving work earlier than usual. Consequently, he grabbed a few slabs of gammon from the fridge and popped them into the oven before filling a pot with water to cook the peas, broccoli and cauliflower. He fingered the salt and pepper before applying them generously to the pot, and in a sudden fit of remembrance, he pulled out the gammon stakes and coated both in a mix of soy sauce and honey. He carefully adjusted the knobs on the cooker to make sure that the water wouldn’t boil too quickly, before deciding that he had done enough for now and could turn to other activities.
“Marl, do you have any homework?” He called to the patter of feet, as he son ran to open his bedroom door.
“Do you have any homework?” He asked to a deafening silence from across the walkway, “well?”
“Reading,” he replied absentmindedly, and so Leonard walked around the kitchen counter, towards his son’s bedroom.
“Let’s get started on it now whilst the dinners cooking, it’s going to take a while so it should give us enough time. Grab your books and come over to the couch,” Leonard requested to which his son obliged happily enough. They took turns reading a page to each other, taking much joy in pulling faces and speaking in weird voices for each of the different characters. It eventually became a contest as to who could make the other laugh more, and who could pull the ugliest faces and make the most bizarre noises. By the end of the story all that could be heard were barely intelligible grunts, and it was at this point that Marianna returned home. He rose to hug his wife and kiss on her on the cheek, before she then nestled next to Marley to ask him about his day and what he had been up to. Leonard felt an intense contentment as Marley recounted the story they had just read, before grabbing their plates from the kitchen and stacking them with their hot, steamy dinner. As he brought over the plates to the couch, he was forced to pause due to the look of confusion plastered on Marianna’s face.
“Len, where is the table?”
“The table, where is the dinner table?” She asked once more, and in response Leonard rested the plates down on the kitchen counter so that he could gesticulate properly.
“Oh well you know how it kept wobbling because the third leg was chipped at the base? Well when I was taking a break from writing I figured I’d try to fix it permanently. I cut down each of the other three legs and sandpapered the bottoms so that it would sit flatly on the floor, unfortunately my measurements were a touch off so I had to keep cutting the legs to make them even…” however he was too embarrassed to say anymore and so he looked towards the TV, and Marianna’s eyes followed his own to find their TV sitting on a “brand new” coffee table.
“Really Len? So how are we going to eat dinner?”
“Easy, we can just sit around the kitchen counter! And if you think about it, this is a nice way for us to talk for a change instead of sitting in front of the TV-”
“No!” Marley cried before tilting his head in submission due to a look of admonishment from his father. Eventually Marianna warmed up to the idea and they sat around the kitchen counter, with their meal accompanied by the scratching of cutlery and the arrhythmic patter of small talk. Once they had finished eating Marley ran off to his bedroom, leaving Leonard and Marianna alone in the living room area of their apartment.
“Are we boring Leonard?” Marianna asked as she lifted a cup of hot chocolate to her lips, and took a generous sip. Leonard eyed her enviously as his was still too hot to drink, however he allowed the feeling to pass in order to think about her question.
“I was thinking about that today as well.”
“So are we?”
“I think we might be Mary, just, we’ve found our rhythm now haven’t we? We seem to be at a point in our lives where living requires zero initiative. I’ve written close to fifty essays over the last two weeks, and that could easily be five, it could easily by five hundred. It’s the same shit really isn’t it?”
“You’re telling me! I had another scuffle with Jeremy today and it was like I was watching myself argue with him, and on one level I really didn’t care. I was only doing it because bickering is what we’re expected to do.” She took another sip of her hot chocolate and in response Leonard tried his before singing his tongue. He imagined it to throb and glow like a cartoon character’s, as he held it between his lips in order to allow the sore tip to receive a bit of cool air.
“How are you able to drink that? Mine just burned my tongue?” He asked petulantly although Marianna waved him off with a flick of her right hand. They sat in silence for a few minutes as they were both caught in this sense of jaded complacency, and they both sought the right words to make this conversation exciting.
“I finished writing that commission,” Leonard uttered after they had spent the last few minutes in a heavy silence. The change in subject matter piqued Marianna’s interest, and he felt her shift in weight as she moved to better look at him.
“That was quick! So how do you feel?”
“Unsatisfied, like it’s unfinished.”
“Great, that means that you can tell me about it and don’t skim over your place in the story either.” Marianna demanded and Leonard let out a heavy sigh as that last request prickled his skin. He had spent the entire day extracting himself from the case of R Vs. Ayodele and yet in a single sentence Marianna had reattached the rope.
“Where to begin? I guess it makes the most amount of sense to start from the beginning. Alright then, so back when I was in sixth form college I was very good friends with a girl called Marta, and she was one of the schools teaching assistants; she worked primarily with the children who were falling behind in their modern languages. I was pretty good at French back then and so we got to know each other very well through the Languages Club.”
“What was the Languages Club?”
“It was a half hour afterschool club led by the Head of Languages Mr. Morgan Ayodele. Good old Mr. Morgan, he was a very popular teacher back in the day. He had the right balance between firmness and friendliness, and he also let the sixth formers call him Mr. Morgan which made him one of our favourite teachers. Anyway during Languages Club sessions, myself, Marta and a few other students would take a table of six kids and assist them with their homework; we also practiced speaking the language with them as well. The only rule was that English was not allowed. Now Mr. Morgan’s son, a boy named Paulie, was also a member of the club and he was preparing for his GCSE’s at the time, although I can’t remember if he was in Year 10 or Year 11? Anyway he was a bit of a quiet boy, which was made more unfortunate by the fact that he was extremely lanky, unbalanced and had acne. And Mr. Morgan would just tear into him constantly, everything he did wrong, everything he did right, everything he didn’t do and everything he did too much of was criticised relentlessly. Needless to say he was picked on by the other children in the club as a result, however myself and Marta always did our bit to support him. She always said he was a sweetheart and he really did open up around her, I thought they had a connection…”
“Hold on Len I’m a bit confused, how do these people fit in with the case you were investigating?”
“Oh sorry, long story short a few years later Paulie kidnapped Marta’s son, and locked him in his basement. Whilst he was in there he had an asthma attack and died.”
“Gosh, wow, so you did know these people then didn’t you?”
“That’s what I’ve been saying and it’s crazy because yes I did know them. I knew Marta up until my second year of university because we went to the same place, however she graduated a year ahead of me. I believe she’s a full time teacher now, or at least she is if her Facebook profile is anything to go by. In any case we lost touch shortly after her graduation and so I remember hearing about her son’s death from mutual friends.”
“Ok so why did Paulie kidnap Marta’s son?”
“According to the court documents, it was because…” Leonard paused as he rubbed his forehead in an attempt to iron out the stress and embarrassment, “Mr. Morgan abused Paulie, and well Paulie blamed Marta for not doing anything to stop it. He also claimed that Marta had a fling with Mr. Morgan and so not only did she know about his mistreatment, she also witnessed it.”
“Are you ok?” His wife asked uneasily because Leonard had fallen silent, and he shook his head with a mild sense of irritation.
“We all knew about the jokes Mary, we all shared the rumours. We knew that Mr. Morgan was too friendly with Marta; and we knew that he was also too hard on Paulie; and we just turned it into gossip. Gosh maybe that’s why this commission has caused me so much anxiety? Am I in some way responsible for what happened Marianna?”
“To who? To Paulie, or to Marta’s son?”
“I was actually only thinking about Marta’s son, but if I had a hand in one crime then I must have had a hand in the other. Maybe I am somewhat responsible for both? Maybe it doesn’t matter either way?”
“Or maybe you need to find out.” Marianna asked as she placed a hand on his shoulder and he peeked through his fingers sheepishly.
“Investigate the case more thoroughly and figure out how you fit into it. In any case it’s something to do isn’t it? And I quite like the idea of being a femme fatale in your hardboiled criminal investigation.”
“Hard boiled? Femme Fatale? You’re taking a bit of a leap on how exciting this is going to be aren’t you?”
“It can be as exciting as we want it to be, and at the very least it’s something new to do isn’t it?”
“That it is, alright then I’ll do it. I’ll find out if I could have stopped what happened to Marta’s son,” Leonard reiterated as he hiccupped an odd sort of giggle, before embracing his wife warmly and wholly.
“How could I ever think that our life was getting stale?” He asked rhetorically before finally taking a sip of his now too cold hot chocolate.