Great stories, beautifully told
by Alice Nuttall
It was harder than she’d thought to make a murderer smile.
She’d sat there in the courtroom with her sketchbook throughout the trial, filling page after page with drawings of the prosecution and defence, the witnesses, the crying parents two by two by two. She’d heard the gruesome details, told in clinical tones by police officers with hollow eyes. She spent a lot of time on those eyes, the shadows beneath them, the faint points of light. In each line, she tried to show the reflection of what they’d seen.
She drew him most of all. He was what all the papers wanted. The photos from outside the courtroom were splashed across the front pages, but they needed her drawings for the reports of what was happening inside. They wanted to see if he still looked meek and sad and lumpy as he sat before the judge. If his thick, square glasses misted up when the crime scene photos were shown. If he cried, or bowed his head, or did anything at all when the tapes were played.
Mostly, he stayed blank. It was frustrating. She drew his sagging shape, his combover, his weak chin, the sulky, pouting lips that he’d licked into a spiderweb of cracks. None of the drawings seemed real.
Perhaps it was because he wasn’t a person. He was a hollow, man-shaped thing that wore two ill-fitting suits, one polyester, one skin. Nothing seemed to touch him, not even the sobs of the man who’d found the third little girl, as he explained that at first he’d thought it was a doll, just a doll.
She filled half a sketchbook on the first day of his cross-examination. All the pictures were the same. A dull, grey figure in dull, grey pencil, no more life in him than in the paper underneath. He kept his gaze down, his face soft. He kept himself quiet. I’m not a threat, his body language said. How could I be? Just look at me.
Her editor looked through the scans she’d sent after court closed for the day, while she sat on the other end of the phone, listening to his sniffs and occasional grunts.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I suppose we can use that third one?”
“Do you need something in particular?”
A pause. A huff.
“Can you draw him smiling?”
She blinked. “He doesn’t smile.”
“You’re an artist, aren’t you?”
“That doesn’t mean I can just make things up. Not for something like this.”
“Oh.” He sounded disappointed. She thought of her bills, her rent, the impermanence of her job.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
* * * *
The next day, as he took the stand, she straightened up in her seat and smiled at him.
His gaze was as low as ever. He didn’t see her. But other people did.
“Are you a friend of his?” a journalist asked her, when they broke for lunch.
“No, of course not.” I’m in the press seats, just like you. I’m holding a sketchbook. You’ve seen me drawing every day.
“So why are you smiling at him like that?”
She fudged an answer and walked away to eat her sandwich. While she ate, she doodled a picture of the journalist. A bit of a caricature, a bit mean, but it made her feel better.
She set the smile back on her face when court resumed. This time, he glanced up and caught her eyes.
His expression flickered. Not a smile, but a little flash of fear.
That was interesting. She caught it quickly, before the memory faded.
* * * *
On the second day of his cross-examination, a bailiff tapped her on the shoulder. The court was taking a short break. Tensions were high, feelings overwrought. An argument had nearly broken out between defence and prosecution. She wasn’t immune. The tap made her jump.
“You need to stop smiling.”
“It’s intimidating. You have to stop it.”
“This isn’t up for discussion. If you want to stay…”
She scribbled another caricature, this one even less flattering. When court resumed, she kept her face neutral – but every time he looked her way, she gave him a quick, secret grin.
After the fifth time, he smiled back.
It was an oily, nervous smile, as thin as the slick of a snail. Lip-scabs parted, a flash of yellow teeth. She caught it on the page, getting the smatter of stubble, the shine of saliva. It was crooked, amateur, like he’d only read about smiles, and it was exactly what she’d wanted.
When she walked out of the courtroom at the end of the day, a blob of spit hit her cheek. She whipped around to see where it had come from, but there were too many angry faces, too many snarls of disgust. They burned into her mind. She could have drawn them all from memory.
That night, the phone rang.
“Hi! Is that the Sunday Killer’s girlfriend?”
She hung up. The phone rang again immediately. It started up again every time she rejected a call until, eventually, she switched it off.
* * * *
The next day, she emailed her sketches to the editor, ignoring the rest of her suddenly-full inbox.
He normally got back to her within the hour, when it came to this case. At the end of the day, nothing had showed up – not from him, anyway.
Maybe more news had broken. She did a quick Google on the case and clicked on the first news site she found.
The page opened.
Her own face looked out at her, smiling.
Copyright © 2019 Alice Nuttall