They talked as though it were a normal occasion, engrossed in each others’ words, perched on stools, the only customers at a long, narrow table. A plump woman was preoccupied with coat, scarf, laptop and cappuccino on one of the settees, while a pair of bestubbled young men hunched towards each other over a circular table, whispering confidentially.
They talked: the law, Mariella’s chaotic flatmate, last week’s awful band. All the usual subjects. He left her briefly, and as he walked across the coffee shop in his academic’s baggy trousers, sunlight picked out thinning hair at the back of his head. He bantered with the cheerful Polish girl at the counter and ordered two more Americanos.
Mariella watched thoughtfully for a moment, turned on her stool, and looked beyond the busy road, across the broad London square, at the regular pattern of white pillars against brown brick. Her mouth was small and straight, and her face lacked the anonymous symmetry of beauty, but benefited from being individual and feminine. That day, she did not smile.
They talked again until the coffee mugs were empty. Conversation was not exhausted, but the time had come. He stood, head slightly forward as was his way. She stood, shorter without the stool, solid legs in thick grey tights. They exchanged a brief kiss, he wrapped his arms round her, she placed hers round him, and they clung, and clung, and continued to cling. The coated woman fumbled to connect a phone to her computer, the unshaven men left, and the waitress attended to a group of Chinese students.
They released each other, and she dabbed at her wet face with a tissue. They turned opposite ways at the door and she called in a wavering voice: ‘Goodbye Ralph!’
* * *
Ralph sent Mariella a text, asking her to let him know when she’d arrived safely. He’d told a colleague he wished she would stay, and qualify in English law; Colombia was the last country to be a lawyer. He couldn’t believe she’d be safe, and in any case it would be an unsatisfying place to practise. There was a distance between the law and the reality of justice. The other man laughed. ‘So you could make an English barrister out of her, Ralph?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘she could do it herself. She’s brilliant.’
Mariella didn’t reply to the text, and he wasn’t surprised. She would be busy packing, settling her rent, bidding farewell to friends, and travelling to the airport. All he hoped for was one line when she arrived in Bogota, but that didn’t come either. He could imagine how hectic life would be, swamped by an emotional family, readjusting to a different lifestyle, answering a thousand questions. Her focus would be shifted entirely. But he felt sad, and a little hurt, that there was no message.
Students had noticed, of course, that he gave her special attention. She was the star pupil, they acknowledged, but it was more than that. He was friendly with all of them, joined in the pub outings, and even went to some of the Union gigs; but he was closer to her than to anyone else. When they were asked repeatedly, from all quarters, if Ralph and Mariella were having an affair, several said they wouldn’t be surprised.
- 1 -
His flat was searched, his clothes taken way for testing. Thousands of hours of closed circuit video were inspected, which showed nothing and therefore implied Mariella hadn’t gone far. The police had no real evidence; they depended entirely on extracting a confession. He spent hours, days, walled in by painted block work, quizzed, questioned, encouraged, accused, shouted at, threatened.
‘This won’t finish,’ they said, ‘until you tell us where she is.’
He had reasoned, he had deployed his legal skills, he had despaired, he had wept and now, at last, he broke. ‘You don’t care!’ he yelled. ‘She’s my student, she’s my friend, and you cannot care as I do. You are wasting time with me, when you should be searching for her.’
When he was not struggling to defend against accusations more powerful for being so vague, he sat at home, head in hands, wondering what horrors Mariella might have suffered, or, if she were alive, was still suffering.
They called him back, to account for each thread of her clothing fabric, each touch of her DNA, found on his possessions. He was shocked that a trace from her skirt was on his settee. Then he reasoned how that had happened, and knew the police would also be aware of how easily it could be transferred. Yet it made him fearful that frustration would push one of them to manipulate the evidence.
They asked him how many affairs he’d had with students. His own lawyer advised he didn’t have to answer, but he chose to.
‘Nineteen years ago I had sex after a party, with a girl who was one of my law students. She was twenty, and I was twenty seven. That’s the only occasion.’ He subsequently wished he’d listened to the advice. That openness in the privacy of the interview room was followed by a tabloid ‘hunt for mystery sex woman.’
Ralph was suspended from his job, as he knew he must be. His photo, the picture of an ageing loner who hung around girl students, appeared again and again in the newspapers.
Weeks dragged into months. Mariella’s parents came to London to appear on television, demanding police action, asking where British justice was, and tearfully protesting no-one was interested in a poor Colombian girl who had been failed by everyone.
Then Ralph was arrested and charged. The large woman with the coat and laptop had seen them arguing, Mariella in tears, immediately before she disappeared. This accusation fouled the precious memory of their parting. It was difficult enough to endure the shock and grief: someone he admired had disappeared without trace. To be accused, cut off from everyone he knew by the poison of suspicion, damaged him more than he could express.
His lawyer said: they cannot convict on this evidence. You will be set free. Ralph knew as much law as his advisor, but his faith had been shattered. He took some comfort that at least a Not Guilty verdict would clear his name and end the nightmare. Except he didn’t get a Not Guilty verdict. The laptop woman decided she hadn’t seen them argue after all, and the prosecutors, having agreed he should be charged, decided he shouldn’t be tried. He was set free, in their terms at least.
Ralph’s and Mariella’s photographs sat alongside each other on the front pages of the newspapers. ‘No justice for Mariella: lack of evidence!’ said the headlines. Prominence was given to the police statement: we are not looking for anyone else in connection with this case. Ralph read the evil words in despair. He had been judged guilty, and condemned.
- 2 -
He set out from his flat late at night to avoid the uneasy glances of his neighbours. The cold permitted him to obscure his over publicised face behind a turned up collar, and he walked the unsleeping streets, shunning the illuminated interiors of buses. He didn’t see how he could return to lecturing, and explaining to students the nature of justice. As he strode through the straight streets, he turned his face away whenever pedestrians approached, feigning a studious gaze at the terraces. He hurried nervously on reaching the area where every building bore the university’s sign boards, and hunched lower as he passed the brightly lit Union, wishing he had not come.
Ralph wanted to wind back the clock, but not to this moment, for soon he was outside the darkened coffee shop, on the pavement where he and Mariella had parted.
He stopped, no longer wanting to reach the bridge over the Thames, where they had leant on the cold stone parapet and indulged their intellects in debate about different court systems. He feared the lure of the dark water swirling below. Instead, he crossed the road, clung to the spearheads of the iron railings, and peered into the locked and shadowed gardens where they had also walked, and talked, argued and laughed.
Ralph remembered her tears at their parting, and answered them now with his own. ‘Mariella,’ he murmured, ‘poor, clever, lovable Mariella. Whatever happened to you?’ He was still and silent for several minutes, hushed by the enormity of her tragedy. Then, barely able to raise his shoulders, he faced towards home and moved slowly along the footpath, staring at the rectangular paving slabs, as he breathed softly: ‘And what happened to me?’
- 3 -
© Roger Woodward, 2014