- The hammer falls (pt. 1)
The hammer fell and John left the courthouse a free man, but vindication was a distant prospect. The victory was a hollow one, and part of him almost wished he’d been sent down; that it would have been safer for him inside.
His accuser didn’t even have the decency to look embarrassed when the not-guilty verdict was read out, instead swept away by paroxysms of outrage punctuated by snot and hiccoughed tears.
She was escorted to the court’s dedicated safe space by female security staff murmuring soothing platitudes. Sympathetic and heartfelt, but platitudes nonetheless.
Mired in a daze of relief mingled with terror, he barely registered as his counsel pumped his hand and clapped him on the shoulder, so transfixed was he by the pointed malevolent stares – only half imagined – directed at him from the public gallery. He was reminded of high school hierarchies as he took in the deliberately too-loud susurrations hissed in pairs from behind garish, look-at-me manicures and accompanied by looks of unveiled disgust.
He swallowed painfully; a year being raked naked over the coals in court had been bad enough, but somehow he knew his troubles were not yet over. Reputation destruction – that was how women fought. Unbidden, the social hashtag #NotAllWomen popped wryly into his head, but he wasn’t ready even for sardonic humour yet, and he sincerely wished that she’d just punched him. At least that would have been honest, something he could understand and respond to.
He became aware of someone speaking to him. His lawyer, Diarmuid O’Carroll, debriefing him in his soft Irish lilt.
“…and once that’s done all you have to do is parrot the ‘no comment’ line, then we’ll get you to the car and you’ll be home before you know it.”
The man was misleading to look at. Looked more like a professor of comparative literature than a public defender, but in this case that had been a blessing. He was singularly non-threatening – even liberal – in appearance, with overlong, iron grey hair that flowed back from a receding hairline, but had a core of steel that would put you neatly in your place should you find yourself regurgitating clichés and doublethink acquired by rote.
He had talked circles around John’s accuser in cross, drawing her out by cunning degrees before slamming point after point home until her lawyer pleaded for a recess so that she might recover from the ‘violence’ – that’s how the lawyer described it – he’d meted out, while her #MeToo army cried hate speech from the gallery. One of them – a pudgy blogger with breasts, faded-pink hair and an artfully mangled hammer and sickle tee in his early twenties – had even swooned, requiring paramedics with oxygen to revive him. The look of smug self-satisfaction was already on his face when he fluttered open his eyes and took in the concerned faces peering at him from among the aroused, angry ones.
O’Carroll paused in his speech to give John an appraising look softened with sympathy. Shellshock, he concluded to himself.
“Look, John,” he said, lowering his voice to confidential levels. “It’s been a rough year for you, man. Let me give your statement to the vultures outside, eh? Then you just go home and try to relax for a few days before we decide on any counter action, okay?”
John flicked his attention away from the gallery, now chanting in unison as the irate judge rapped his gavel to no effect:
“Hey hey, ho ho, teach these rapists that no means NO!”
He nodded in mute assent.
The year had left him a chewed-up husk, wan, withdrawn and stooped so that he seemed much smaller than he really was. He was thinner, too, and his hair had started to grey a little around the temples. He was twenty-eight, but stress and malnourishment had taken their toll. His eyes had lost their light, his skin its bounce.
The fatherly hand of his lawyer in the middle of his back guided John toward the exit and he wanted to weep at the touch, instead taking in a vast lungful of air to hold, opening his eyes wide so that the blooming tears would evaporate, all in an effort not to give in to the wretched vulnerability he felt.
John had his supporters in court, but most of them were strangers; the ones he’d known from Before had fallen by the wayside in ones and twos as the case had dragged on and he’d climbed further into his own navel. Those that were left he shrank away from, fearful of physical attack as they reached out sympathetic hands to pat him as he passed. No air of triumph permeated them; rather, they exuded an air of haunted solidarity and brotherhood – rapists, abusers and feckless fathers all. Or so they had been labelled, if only by virtue of that pesky, privileged and inherently toxic x chromosome they had had the good fortune to be born with.
He was grateful to have the back of O’Carroll’s neck to look at as his statement was read out on the court steps. In his peripheral vision he recognised several of the reporters that had gathered – regular faces over the course of the trial – from local papers and national. And Buzzfeed. Microphones brandished like stilettos as their owners bristled with sarcasm and bloodlust. Plain bloody lust, to look at the size of their pupils and the flush on their cheeks.
“…and it is our conviction that justice has been served here today. My client will not be taking questions at this time,” finished the corduroy-clad defence lawyer before ushering John down the steps to the waiting police car that would take him home. “No comment,” mumbled John whenever a mic was pushed under his nose. “No comment.”
The word ‘RAPIST’ spray painted without artistry on his front door was a dull knife in John’s gut when he got back to his sad looking house. The policeman that had driven him home said that he and his colleague would stay until nightfall to ward off the worst of the two-bit reporters and rubber-neckers that were already camped out when they arrived. None of them seemed happy he had won.
He sighed and shuffled down the path, defeated in victory.
Some of the windows that had had bricks thrown through them boarded over, and John wore the gloom inside like a blanket of pathetic fallacy cocooning him in his state of mind.
The hallway phone was ringing before he’d even shut the door, so he unplugged it, ignoring the blinking of voicemails left, and went to the kitchen to retrieve the four-pack that was the sole occupant of his fridge.
In the living room, he collapsed into the only chair and sat staring at the wall in the semi-dark, his right index finger flicking a monotonous rhythm against the rim of the untouched can in his hand – a meditation to allow his mind to rest a while, if it could.
His boss had let him go the moment the story broke, saying, “Look, I’m sure it’ll blow over eventually, but my hands are tied. Sorry, mate.
“Tell you what – I’ll write you a reference if you get cleared, yeah?”
The left-wing press were the new police, and he’d been tried and convicted before ever catching a whiff of the inside of an interrogation room.
John wanted to yell Coward! in his boss’s face but the cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol that had been coursing through his system for days since he’d learned what she’d done had left him shamed and shaking, and it was all he could do to mumble Yeah. OK. Thanks. before making his red-faced escape, hoping against hope that he’d be able to get away without running in to any of his colleagues on his way out.
Strangers hadn’t started to recognise him, yet.
Uniformed officers were already waiting for him when he got home, a couple of reporters skulking nearby, and his flush deepened as he felt the neighbourhood curtains twitch as one. They’d sure as hell recognise him soon, he thought.
The female officer presented him with the warrant to search the premises and what he thought was a smirk, and he shrank another inch as he let them in. His place bore all the signs of a successful young bachelor who took pride in himself, albeit a little on the clinical side – all angles and clean lines and neutral colours. He winced as the officers began to rifle through his belongings, rubbing his hand through his hair reflexively.
John liked his life well enough, but it hadn’t quite seemed enough of late. He craved a woman’s touch – both literally and figuratively – although he might have hesitated to phrase it thus if pressed. He just knew that, unlike most of his peers, who were all about the good times, he wanted to settle down, raise a family and build a life with someone he could just, you know, rub along with. Someone who’d challenge him and lift him up all at once, and for whom he’d do the same.
He’d been on a handful of dates – he hated that word – but no-one had really stood out. Pleasant enough, but dull; no spark in them.
When the police officers started to pile up his electronics and – he didn’t know where to look – porn collection by the front door, it occurred to him that he should have known better than to download that hook-up app, but busy as he was he thought he’d give it a stab anyway, just in case. You never knew.
Sandra Solomon was her name. She talked a good game but she was damaged in not-so-obvious ways, product of an absent father and strident, irresponsible mother who taught her to be the same. She came on strong at the end of their second date, and John had had to put on the breaks. “That’s not what I’m after,” he’d said, but gently. He liked her and he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Oh, she pouted a little – John thought it was sweet – but he’d persuaded her not to take offence. He was looking for something serious.
Sandra wasn’t. At least not with him.
Sandra liked one of his colleagues, Ollie. She’d spotted him looking convivial with John as she’d swiped through his profile pics on the app. He’d never shown anything beyond polite interest in her and she wasn’t sure how to make herself noticed. When she saw him in that picture with a pint and his arm draped around John, she barely hesitated before saying Fuck it and swiping up with a frisson of adrenaline.
She wasn’t a bad actress, he had to give her that. When, after a few weeks, he introduced her to his friends, she played the part of cool new girlfriend to a tee. Funny, cute, quick-witted but feminine. Everyone was impressed – and trying to impress – including Ollie. She wore a Che Guevara t-shirt. They all just thought it was a cool icon. John was so thrilled the night was going so well that he didn’t register Sandra and Ollie cutting their eyes at one another when each thought the other wasn’t looking.
On a high, he took her back to his place that night. He put some music on and got them a drink, and they’d made out for a bit on the sofa before Sandy had breathed in his ear that they should take the party upstairs. After the success of her first outing among his mates John felt ready to take that step. He’d been tentative, not wanting to mess up their first time together. He wasn’t interested in hookups or casual. She hadn’t seemed bothered at all, even put on a bit of a show.
“Pull my hair,” she’d said. “Fuck me harder.”
John didn’t lack an adventurous spirit, and he enjoyed wild sex as much as the next twenty-something, but it felt a bit cold, if he was honest. Although he knew the first time with someone new often resulted in overcompensating, so he didn’t let it get to him.
Although he was surprised when she said she was going home an hour later.
The next day, she responded to his messages in terse monosyllables, and when he tried to call her that evening it went straight to voicemail. John was concerned, but figured she just needed a little space after taking such a big step. Perhaps when she’d figured things out they could discuss where this was going. He texted her as much and signed off with a kiss.
He didn’t hear from her directly again.
The beautiful, erudite young woman with piled-up, messy-chic hair the colour of roses switched the camera on and sat down to tell her story to the world. It was a story of hair pulling and rough treatment marked by a lack of verbal consent. Her tears and artfully smeared eye makeup underscored the problem that had become endemic in these times.
She spoke with a home-counties clip, a grad student at LSE who was, conveniently, writing her thesis on rape culture and gendered violence. Her channel name was Ella HitzGerald, and she had a couple of thousand subscribers. As of the other night, a couple thousand and one.
Between sobs and wrung hands she described how she’d been interested in this guy, a night of pool and drinking and banter, friends and colleagues. One in particular hadn’t left her alone, and she’d been too tipsy to make her feelings clear when he took her back to his place only to treat her roughly. She still had bruises on her scalp where he’d pulled her hair, she said.
The comments section had blown up – mostly in her favour; the video was used to bolster the message of similar content creators around the web, and pretty soon another round of pieces referencing, among others, John, was appearing in such august publications as Cosmo and HuffPost; another smattering of hashtag-me-toos, and solidarity for survivors of sexual violence ranging from those awkward knee-fumbles to cat-calls and beyond.
One in four women! Rape culture! Patriarchy!
The next day, John picked up his extension and moments later was on his way, as requested and unsuspecting, to speak to his boss.
That night he couldn’t tear himself away from his laptop except to throw up.
- The hammer falls (pt. 2)
John hadn’t moved from his chair. He hadn’t even drunk that beer, and in the absence of life signs and the presence of a sympathetic, drenching drizzle, his little band of scavengers had slunk away to their various holes for the night.
At dusk, the police assigned to John’s house knocked on the door to let him know they were heading off. They reminded him that he should let them know next time he planned to have consensual sex. He almost laughed at that, before he remembered his dream of settling down with a nice girl and having kids one day. Before he remembered his burgeoning career, the friends he never heard from anymore and the note of jaundiced disappointment in his mother’s voice the last time he had spoken to her. The laugh was swallowed before his throat could remember what to do with it, and he wondered if he’d ever laugh again.
After speaking to the coppers, John paced in the dark trying to still his thoughts, but they were unrelenting. He told himself that he’d been exonerated, that life would go back to normal, eventually.
The bleak and nihilistic voice that lives in us all told otherwise, and compelled by its destructive impulse, John opened his laptop – its cold, blue glow the solitary source of light. And the single greatest source of darkness.
Social media was awash with third- and fourth-hand news of the verdict; the vast majority of it shockingly referenced and spewing vitriol either at John, the society that bred rapists, and men in general, or sympathy for Sandy and solidarity for survivors.
#MeToo #FuckThePatriarchy #EndRapeCulture
Voices that spoke up in support of John were mobbed and shouted down. Shamed into silence. Some had their details posted online. Naturally, John’s were among them, and the threats piled up.
Ollie watched from his car on the street corner as the police pulled away; saw the flash of blue pulse out and expand into the room downstairs. A silhouette moved to the window, put both hands to the glass, and stood staring out for a long moment before turning away. The quiet residential street glistened and dripped in its dappled halogen glow, the buzz of the streetlamps a soothing hum in concert with the trickle of water picking its way down the street’s cambered edges.
Ollie’s phone buzzed on the seat next to him and he tapped out a quick reply, eyeing the Louisville slugger – a present from a mate who’d visited the States a few years back – in the passenger-side foot well as he did so.
He and Sandy had hooked up about a week after her video went viral. He hadn’t questioned that she’d slept with him right away; hadn’t questioned that she wanted him to do all the things she’d told the internet John had done to her against her will. And more. He was proud to call himself a feminist ally and she didn’t have to take responsibility or justify herself to anyone.
He ended his message with a promise to see her right and a kiss and picked up the bat as he slid from the car, shutting the door quietly behind him. The street was more or less deserted, but he kept the bat close to his side and skirted the pools of light cast by the streetlamps, his hood up against rain and recognition.
As he drew near to John’s front door Ollie was startled by a flash of white light over the steady blue, and the sharp strike of a muffled shot. Through the window he watched the tall shadow fold itself down toward the floor. Although his pulse quickened, he thought of his sweet, vulnerable, dirty, willing girl at home, shrugged inwardly and walked back to his car.
- Turning point
The case turned in John’s favour when a video that had been deleted from Sandra Solomon’s phone was retrieved. The public gallery was cleared while those involved in the case viewed its content, which was not made public beyond the gospel of speculation. A large number of loud voices shouted that it didn’t matter if John was innocent. He was guilty simply by dint of being a straight, white man, and if a few innocent men had to go down in flames to serve the cause, so be it.
John’s death was ruled a misadventure the day Sandy first struck Ollie and he apologised to her for making her do it; the day after a famous libertarian YouTube commentator told the tale of a young woman who had used one man to get to another; a sexual predator who cried rape to inflame his need to be heroic in the only way he’d been taught how – subservient and weak; who walked away from the destruction of an upright young man’s life as the hero walks away from a slow-motion explosion in an action movie: without a scratch. At the end of the video he displayed John’s first, last, and only tweet, from the night he died. He left it there a full minute before fading to black.
@JohnIrons tweeted: I just wanted to live a good life. Thank you to those who supported me. I wish I’d known some of you in person.