Annie Fan

Mens Rea


Gaby didn’t mean to do it. She wanted to, though — wanted to do something so bad that she might have something to write about — to make the words better than her own life, own breathing, Mark’s breathing. What else is there to it? They met a decade ago when she was halfway through a bland novel, an equally bland degree. They married and less than a year later, she began wanting. She thought that ten years was a decent run of things, a human sort of number, the length of time when Death itself starts to get antsy for some action around here. Fact: most people die in December, out of all the winter months.

He was a window-dresser who didn’t follow the instructions; his designs were marvelled at by bored clientele in a Monday morning haze — less a wonder of the Elm Tree Arcade, more a liability to the management. He had dark eyes and longish, straw hair. He had to go — this was all that she, Gaby McGregory, and the establishment had in common. Gaby had no time for his serious phase, his conservative-voting-organic-eating thirties; the slow slog into middle age. The horror. She herself was faultless, entirely. This could not be the terrible, gentle plateau signalling the end of things — the Death of Time, as started by Mark the Blunderbuss. Rather: fear was something to be feared, cut off at the source before it could gangrene the other, working, important parts.

The police noted that Gaby had very strong hands. Also notable, though clearly unnoticed, were the keyboard calluses, the faint desperation of undiagnosed carpal tunnel. When the policemen came, she was ready for them. She had been up for seventy-two hours revising, revising, revising. After all, no one mentions the essential drain of being an artist. No one gets this, Gaby used to tell herself, these language arts, these pure linguistic flowers. Who said that? Mallarmé or Marmaduke (— didn’t he translate the Bible? Once?) or some other person? Another fact: Gaby was beyond caring.

That day, it began innocently enough in her head. All these minor literary moments, these word tricks, made her giggle: Mark, watching TV, beer-belly hanging like low fruit — Gaby defrosting lamb (like a lamb to the slaughter!); final fact — a leg of lamb is like a baseball bat. Under English law, it is only an offence to intend to cause injury with a baseball bat, but not to intimidate. This is what her lawyers argued, badly. Brown LJ’s wrinkles had gotten immeasurably deeper during their piece. Fortunately for Gaby, her arms weren’t as strong as her hands; they folded and flopped like plum saplings under a vigorous breeze. Seeing this, for the first time, the lawyers had thrown up their own hands, praised a higher power before the high court judge, recommended (privately) that she change her plea to manslaughter.

But this is the power of words. Mark had believed in dataism, in his paranoid moments — in the power of little points being brought together in ways they should never have been, in reverse engineering a life, becoming a substitute for God. For Gaby, it didn’t quite come to metaphysics. Physics, yes — the transmission of information as tiny acts of light inside glass wires, that magnificent cloud (powered by Amazon Web Services) fit to rival any of the commandment-bearing puffs at Sinai.

Simply: Gaby confessed and her laptop listened. She had written out spreadsheet lists, all her meticulous planning, quite ready to keep it to herself and not quite understanding instant data syncing. ‘The Death of M’, she called the folder, thinking the title quite grand, a little risqué, great fun. Mark seemed so mysterious, so unusual, when put down to size; in these moments, Gaby liked to think of him as some sort of enemy agent, sent in to interfere with her words and her life. She felt some kind of deep, fizzy emotion and loved it; she named it regret.

But, oh, what strange words Mark gave her — a Freudian slip? She had also written a book with the words hit hit hit hit in quick succession, followed by animal, and surprisingly, peas. Rinse and repeat; nine thousand words, utter gibberish. This was all years ago. The judge admitted that he could make little sense of this style, a window into Gaby’s favourite question: how to kill him? The middle, a good thirty thousand words, was surprisingly clear; an experimental spreadsheet-like timetable of her plotting, of her hating. Gaby had always taken an engagement diary approach to life; this was her most remarkable trait, other than her words. And, last week, sozzled on cheap wine, she’d taken a series of screenshots of ‘The Death of M’ and stuck them into the middle of her novelette-in-verse (an ode to the Sunday dinner). Finally, after three days of edits, she’d uploaded the whole thing to be sold for under a pound. Such was the worth of Mark’s life, she later claimed. Gaby had been so sure. It would be the first self-published novel to win a huge prize, the brilliant globe of her mind marvelling at itself.

At this point, you ought to know that Gaby had kept mirrors all around the house. Ostensibly, this was to drown Mark’s presence with her own self, to create so many little infinities. What is a word? A deep reflecting pool, the easy slip of a mind into unreality. What is a husband? Something to be loved, feared, eradicated; marriage is a disease, is diseased, faulty at the source. Call it delirium. And, dazed, after the book was read before the court in its entirety, the judge dreamily spoke of Gaby’s erratic musicality and of his own feeling of floating. The court monitor caught none of this. The judge had a coffee break and came back to his senses, noting a large folder of evidence (mysteriously titled). The plea was denied. And the sentences of the sentencing framework remained unchanged — shiny and real.


                   Annie Fan reads law at Oxford University. Her work has been broadcast by BBC Radio 3, and appears or will appear in PN Review, Poetry London and Ambit, among others. She is a shadow trustee at MPT Magazine.

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