The Contested Death of Kathryn May

Submitted into Contest #59 in response to: Write a story that feels lonely, despite being set in a packed city.... view prompt

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Drama Mystery Sad

Ceri doesn’t get called into a case until the end of her first day. She learns later that this is good going: some jurors wait days to be called, if they’re called at all. But all she knows is that if she hadn’t been called, she might have chewed her arm off in boredom.

The woman next to her, Leanne, is also called. “Thank God for that,” she says as they stand. “I was ready to chew my own arm off.”

Ceri sniggers and, together, they walk to the usher.

They’re both selected as jurors, but as Ceri’s sixth and Leanne is seventh, they don’t sit next to each other. Once everyone’s settled, they’re told that the case relates to the alleged malicious administration of poison so as to endanger life, assault by penetration, sexual assault, wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm, and murder of Kathryn May.

“I will see you tomorrow at ten,” the judge says as Ceri’s mouth goes dry. “And remember, members of the jury: you must discuss this case only if you are together in a place where you cannot be overheard.”



She takes the bus home. Her phone buzzes with messages from friends, wanting to know what jury service is like, joking that she’ll send them all down. She fires off a quick reply: Lol. We’ll see. On case now but can’t talk about it. Then she settles back to look out the window. She likes this, likes the bustle of London streets, the chatter of conversation, how easy it is to slip through and become part of the crowd. In a city this big, you’re never alone. No matter how misunderstood or lonely you feel, someone out there will accept you. You just have to let yourself reach out.



The next day, the Prosecution give their lengthy opening statement. Kathryn May went alone to Ku Bar, a well-known haunt for the LGBT community. There, among flashing lights and cheesy music, she met Jessica Harvey. They returned to Kathryn’s flat. The Prosecution allege that Jessica had drugged Kathryn, and proceeded to have non-consensual rough sex with her, before killing her. The Defence maintain that Kathryn had mixed her medication with alcohol, all acts were consensual, and Kathryn killed herself after Jessica left.

The jurors get evicted from the courtroom several times, for reasons not explained to them. While waiting, they talk. They learn that Leanne is a stay-at-home mum; Ali, who sits next to Ceri, is a teacher; Neil, the loudest, is a banker; Vivian, the youngest, is a law student. And that nobody wants to be on jury service.

That evening, she exchanges idle messages with friends as she watches people pass by, wondering what their days were like.



On the third day, she sees her first dead body. Kathryn May was pretty, in life. Strawberry-blonde hair, pale skin, freckles: all marred by the blood running from wrists, thighs, forehead, down her naked body; the blue-black of bruises winding their way round limbs and neck and torso; and lifeless blue eyes staring into the camera. Nobody else seems fazed though, so Ceri dutifully makes notes as police officers describe the scene of the crime. At lunch, she goes for a walk, letting herself be lost in familiar streets. But bruises and glassy eyes plague her, and when someone nudges her, it startles her.

That afternoon, there are more pictures, of lacerations and bruises and vomit. No part of Kathryn’s body is spared. Everyone nods like this is normal, so she does too. In the next break, they laugh about Neil’s daughter nearly crashing his car. She feels sick.

But as they’re lining up to go in, Ali mutters, “If I wasn’t before, those pictures definitely made me gay.”

She snorts, then feels awful.



That evening, she meets her friends for a drink in a bar by Covent Garden. Everyone wants to know about jury service, but she can’t say anything about the case. She can’t even tell them how she’s learned that a woman can’t commit rape, legally it’s called something else. So, she tells them how Leanne has a theory that the judge isn’t wearing trousers and that’s why they never see her stand. She encourages them to talk about their days, lets their laughter and jokes wash over her. She watches tourists from the corner of her eye, happy and carefree, taking pictures and pointing at street performers, trying to lose herself in that anonymity.

She can’t stop picturing Kathryn May’s dead body.



The trial continues. They hear from police officers, witnesses from the club, Kathryn’s flatmate who was away that night. They hear how Kathryn had moved to the city recently for a job that she liked. How she often went alone to LGBT bars, only dancing if approached by another woman. How she was always friendly, but came across as very private.

Then they hear from Kathryn’s sister, Angela.

Angela cries as she describes how lovely Kathryn was, how kind she was, how happy. Tearfully, she describes how Kathryn hadn’t answered her phone that morning. How Angela had banged on the door, begged a spare key from a neighbour, entered to find…

They run out of time for cross-examination before the weekend. As they leave, everyone glances at each other.

“So,” Neil says, too loudly, “weekend plans?”

People chip in with trips, concerts, dinners. Ceri switches her phone on. She’s meant to be going to the cinema. It feels weird, to do something so normal, but it’ll be good for her. This week’s been a bit intense.

Outside, Angela May walks past. They watch her, and she watches them, but they can’t speak to each other. Angela leaves first.



The film is a horror film. Ceri leaves halfway through.

“What’s wrong?” a friend asks, following her.

She pauses. There are so many people nearby. They’re so loud. Have they always been this loud?

“Too gory,” she says, trying to shake it off. “I’ll wait in the café.”

She sits. A nearby couple plan their next holiday. She tries to lose herself in it, maybe google holiday destinations herself, but she can still hear Angela May’s sobs.

Her friends arrive, chattering about the film. Ceri makes herself laugh at being called a wuss. Then someone says, “Hey, you hear about that psycho lesbian?”

Her mouth goes dry.

“Yeah. Reckon she watched that film first?”

“That’s not funny,” Ceri says. Everyone turns to her. “The victim was a real person.”

She was quiet. She was friendly. Angela loved her.

“Chill, Cez,” someone says. “We’re just saying-”

She’s not even supposed to hear this. “I know. I’m sorry. I have to go.”

She walks the whole way home. Somehow, she finds herself dodging the crowds.



On Monday, Angela May is cross-examined. It’s awful. The simple fact of the matter is: Angela had no idea Kathryn wasn’t straight. She didn’t know she took antidepressants. She didn’t know she kept a diary, recording how lonely she felt.

“She would have told me,” Angela says tearfully. “We told each other everything.”

“But that’s not true, is it?” says the defence barrister patronisingly. “We know Kathryn went to Ku Bar to meet women. We know she was taking Tofranil. And we know she worried what people would think if they knew of her … sexual proclivities. These are key parts of her life, Angela. None of which you knew.”

Ceri watches and takes notes. In the breaks, the jurors chat and joke. Neil asks everyone who the most attractive person in the courtroom is; Vivian makes everyone laugh by nominating the defence barrister, despite his voice being incredibly annoying. It helps, these little sessions, but when she tries to explain them to her mum, she doesn’t get it. It’s just funny, is all. It’s just something to distract them from a family falling apart as they watch.

As she hangs up, she nearly walks into someone. She scowls. There’s always someone nearby. Can’t they just watch where they’re going?



On Tuesday, the lift breaks. They have to walk up four flights of stairs to reach the courtroom, so they start spending breaks in the corridor outside.

“Budget cuts,” Ceri says to her friends at the pub, nodding knowledgeably.

“Really?” someone says. “That’s the most interesting thing that happened in court today?”

It isn’t. She also heard, in great detail, how the width of certain wounds suggested a struggle, and about the effects of date rape drugs and alcohol, versus Tofranil and alcohol. She saw close-ups of cuts and bruises and vomit, and nearly threw up in the unisex toilet herself. When she emerged, Ali ducked in, looking very green.

“Well, Vivian and Leanne did try to race down the corridor. The usher nearly had a fit when she came out.”

Everyone exchanges confused looks, so she changes the topic.



The case becomes more prominent on the news, on social media, in conversations. She’s not allowed to hear or see any of it. She logs off Facebook. She stops checking the news. She starts plugging herself into her iPod whenever she’s out so that she can’t hear people’s conversations. Other jurors say they’re doing the same.

Eventually, she starts avoiding crowds. It’s easier, that way.



They finally hear from Jessica Harvey, a slight and demure young woman. She cries as she describes meeting Kathryn at Ku Bar, hitting it off with her, going back to her flat. She talks about their activities in far too graphic detail. About how enthusiastic Kathryn was. About how, yes, she cut Kathryn but it was consensual, and Kathryn had said she’d wash the knife later. How they had safewords. How she’d thought Kathryn seemed morose, a little frustrated, maybe. If she’d realised…

Ceri tries to picture Jessica’s hands around Kathryn’s neck, around a knife handle, palming powder into a cup. But that’s speculation. She’s not allowed to do that.



“You know,” says Vivian in one break, “there are more explicit sadomasochism cases out there. Ever heard of Brown?”

“No,” says Neil firmly. “And if I’m very lucky, I never will.”

“Just don’t read the Court of Appeal decision. It’s very graphic. This doesn’t even come close. Apart from the murder part, of course. That’s worse.”

Ceri shudders. Ali says, “Well, now I have to read it.”

“Actually, that probably breaches the not looking up the law rule…”

There’s a pause. Then Ali says, “Then why tell us about it?”

Everyone laughs. Later, she doesn’t explain the joke to her friends. They wouldn’t get it anyway.



The case isn’t done by the end of the second week. This time, everyone seems less enthused about their weekend plans. Someone asks what hers are.

“Girls’ night out, then recovery,” she says, trying to sound cheerful.

“Well, watch out for drugs,” the juror replies. Someone sniggers, but most look uncomfortable. It occurs to her that she barely knows anything about these people. What they find funny, what makes them cry, what makes them think. Her eyes close, and she waves and walks away. She keeps her head down all the way home. 



The night out starts off fun. Nobody talks about Jessica Harvey or crime or murder. It’s all joking and cute guys and music and just another drink. It’s being in a crowd again, swallowed and accepted. It’s like home.

But then they pass SheBar. Natalie looks longingly at it, but the others never want to go to the LGBT bars.

Ceri hears herself say, “Oh, come on. Why not?”

Everyone trades surprised looks before agreeing. They head into the club, infamous for its policy of only permitting men if accompanied by a woman. It’s already full, and the music is wonderfully loud. Natalie looks completely in her element, making Ceri smile. She wonders if Kathryn May ever came here. She wonders if Jessica Harvey does.

Christ.

She takes a drink. Someone grabs her hips. Startled, she turns to see a pretty brunette dancing by her. The brunette winks.

She should say no, she’s not interested, but her mouth is dry. Jessica Harvey met Kathryn May by dancing up to her. Her hand automatically covers her drink; the brunette’s hands are nowhere near it. The music pulses, it smells of sweat and excitement, but suddenly, all she can think is that Kathryn May went for a night out and now she’s nothing but cuts and bruises and vomit and-

The air outside is cool. Natalie is with her.

“What’s wrong?”

She shakes her head because how can she explain? “Not feeling well.”

“Gonna vom?”

“No,” she says, though she isn’t sure. “Might head home.”

Natalie waits until she calls a taxi, before heading inside. Ceri doesn’t talk to the taxi driver. She’s become very used to silence.



They hear from Kathryn’s ex-boyfriend. He shifts anxiously as he’s asked about their sex life.

“I mean,” he says, rubbing his arm, “it wasn’t, like, hardcore. Do I really have to answer?”

He does. It’s horribly awkward as he’s made to describe the BDSM activities Kathryn had enjoyed. In another world, it might have been funny. But he’s sobbing as he’s talking, and somehow, it’s not funny at all.



Her friends send jokes but she doesn’t reply. She doesn’t know what to say anymore.



When they reach the deliberation room, it's a relief. Finally, they can discuss the case. They sit around a big table in a tiny room, and nominate Neil as the foreman because he’s so talkative.

It’s not easy. There’s a lot of evidence, and no clear picture. Ketamine was found on the floor of Ku Bar, but it’s not known if it was Jessica’s, or whether Kathryn had ingested it. But it’s not clear if Kathryn took Tofranil that day either: she wasn’t consistent with it. So, how to explain her suddenly intoxicated state that night? She liked BDSM, as did Jessica, but neither was known for being that rough. Kathryn had started a new job, and her sister and flatmate thought she was happy; her diary suggested deep discomfort with herself. Yet there was no evidence of suicidal thoughts. Jessica Harvey cried when giving testimony; so did half the witnesses. Both women’s fingerprints were on the knife.

What happened that night?

Her trip home, that first evening, is odd. Her throat hurts from talking, and everything she hears seems suddenly insignificant. Who cares if the client was rude? Is a reply-all email really that bad? All this noise, it means nothing when Kathryn May is dead and Jessica Harvey…

The deliberations continue. There’s no more joking, no more races or anecdotes. They must get this right: if they say Guilty, Jessica Harvey might go to jail for a crime she didn’t commit; but if they say Not Guilty, Kathryn May might not be the only victim. Lives depend on them. Lives depend on them, and they don’t know the answer.

Finally, they make a decision. Ceri looks down as Neil delivers it. She doesn’t want to see everyone’s reactions. She doesn’t want to know if they made the right choice.



Afterwards, they look at each other as the realisation that it’s over sinks in. Then everyone talks at once. Ali makes them laugh by saying he’s now been turned off people. Vivian cheerfully says her interest in criminal law is stronger than ever.

Outside, Leanne looks at her. “God, what an experience, eh?”

“Yeah,” Ceri says, trying to smile. “Next time, I’ll just chew my own arm off.”

They laugh awkwardly, and part ways.



And suddenly, life is normal again. She goes to work. She schedules meetings. She returns to social media and shares silly videos with friends. But she laughs less. She hooks up with a guy, but when his fingers touch her throat, she shrieks and nearly gives him a heart attack. She dreams of cuts and bruises and vomit and tells no one.

She’s stopped watching people.



Months later, she goes to Ku Bar for someone’s birthday. As everyone starts dancing, a woman stares at her from the bar. Unnerved, she heads over.

The woman fiddles for a moment, then passes her a drink.

Ceri blushes. “Oh, no. I’m with friends. Sorry.”

The woman’s lips thin. “You don’t recognise me?”

“You-” It clicks. “The sister.”

A nod.

Ceri’s fingers touch the glass. She has no idea what’s in it. “Do you come here often?”

“More since the case. I want to understand…”

“And do you?”

“No.” Angela May closes her eyes. “Did you?”

She doesn’t reply. She can’t. The law is clear: nothing from the deliberation room can be revealed. Not the tears in Leanne’s eyes as she realised they would find Jessica Harvey Not Guilty on all counts, nor the blood on Ali’s knuckles when he punched the wall because there was too much reasonable doubt. Nothing of their shouts, tears, or anger can bleed into the world.

“Please,” Angela says. “She was my sister. She deserves justice.”

That’s what her friends said. She’s never told them she was on that case. She doubts she ever will.

“Do you really think she didn’t kill her?”

Silence.

“Screw you,” Angela May says. “When the next woman dies, I hope it’s you.”

She leaves. Ceri remains, staring at the drink of God knows what. She feels suddenly, desperately, lonely. Around her, people are dancing, laughing, kissing but how can she be part of them when there’s so much of her they’ll never understand?

The swell of people thickens; the drink stands in front of her. Isn’t this how it started? A drink handed over by a stranger?

She makes her decision. With a mocking toast, she downs the drink. It burns like fire and maybe there’s something else there too but it doesn’t matter. Anything has to feel better than this.

The taste of alcohol and God knows what is sharp on her tongue as she walks, alone, into the crowd.

For the first time, she thinks she might understand what happened, the night that Kathryn May died. 

September 19, 2020 00:16

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5 comments

Arizona Foster
19:14 Sep 24, 2020

What a great depiction of how tormenting it can be to get trapped in your own thoughts and to feel isolated despite being around others. I particularly liked the gamble at the end - like a need to be able to relate to someone, anyone. Great read! Thanks for sharing! 🤗

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K Lewis
20:29 Sep 24, 2020

Thanks very much :)

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Haripriya Himesh
08:13 Sep 22, 2020

Dear God. I never realized that the occupation of a juror is bound by so many restrictions! It was unnerving to see Ceri herself losing her grip of what used to be a mundane life. But, mundane turns out to be the better option when slated against the weight of gory truths. I'm so happy I read this. And you, dear writer, are responsible for my sudden BP flare up! Lol.

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K Lewis
21:01 Sep 22, 2020

Thanks very much - but sorry for the BP flare up! And yeah - in the UK, jurors get really strict instructions. Ceri goes a little overboard at one or two points in the story, but otherwise everything she notes she can't do is something she couldn't do if it was a real case. I did jury service myself a couple of years ago - my case was quite different from the one in this story (certainly far less gory/traumatising) but it is weirdly isolating to spend each day watching the case in silence, only really talking to these 11 random strangers in...

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Haripriya Himesh
09:00 Sep 23, 2020

A decision that could make or break one's life when left in your hands to make.pheww. can't even begin to imagine! You limbed every emotion and inner conflict out vividly. Keep it up! I'll make sure to read all your new stories! Looking forward :) 👍

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