By Helen Fitzgerald
Published by Faber & Faber (4 February 2016)
So far, twenty-three thousand and ninety six people have seen me online. They include my mother, my father, my little sister, my grandmother, my other grandmother, my grandfather, my boss, my sixth year Biology teacher and my boyfriend James.
When Leah Oliphant-Brotheridge and her adopted sister Su go on holiday together to Magaluf to celebrate their A-levels, only Leah returns home. Her successful, swotty sister remains abroad, humiliated and afraid: there is an online video of her, drunkenly performing a sex act in a nightclub. And everyone has seen it.
Ruth Oliphant-Brotheridge, mother of the girls, successful court judge, is furious. How could this have happened? How can she bring justice to these men who took advantage of her dutiful, virginal daughter? What role has Leah played in all this? And can Ruth find Su and bring her back home when Su doesn't want to be found?
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Ruth Oliphant was used to wearing a wig. Usually it was short, grey, had three curls above each ear, cost £2,000 (according to the Daily Record ), and complemented her classic black skirt and red robe. The wig she had on now was bright pink, bob-shaped, straight bangs, and it complemented her low-cut slinky black dress and the pink ‘Hen Party’ sash which crossed her torso and back. For fifty-two, she was pretty damn hot. Good skin from years of water-drinking healthy-living. Slim, toned body from years of organic-only vegetarianism as well as a twenty-mile round-trip cycle from home in Doon to the court in Kilbarchie. People laughed that she cycled to work in Lycra, showering and reappearing in ‘My Lady’ clobber.
She wasn’t the only Hen in the jam-packed club, but she was the only one over the age of twenty-five, the only one without a gaggle of at least ten others with an identical sash, and probably the only one who was about to spike a man’s drink.
‘Think you’ve got the wrong place, lady. The bingo’s two doors down.’
‘Does an attractive cougar threaten you?’ She sipped her ‘Multiple Orgasm’ as sensually as she could, leaning forwards to show some cleavage.
‘What makes you think you’re attractive?’ He wasn’t looking at her face when he said this, so it was working.
‘The fact that I am.’ It had taken a long time to find this man and Ruth’s quest to find him had been as mercurial as her plan once she did.
‘Can I wear your wig?’ He stroked her pink hair and looked into her eyes but didn’t recognise her.
She smiled at his glorious stupidity and slipped a pill into his beer. No, she would not let him wear her wig.
She’d been in the afternoon’s custody court when her husband phoned. Wig on, she’d sat through three breaches of the peace, one of them a domestic, an assault to injury, a dangerous driving, a housebreaking, and a few more that she can’t recall now. She was in a good mood by the end of the afternoon session, she remembered that much. Michael MacDonald was defending a few of the cases, and he’d always entertained her, since the first time she’d seen him in court. It was two years ago, and he was defending an unusually dapper man in his early twenties. Ruth had studied the defendant – his designer suit jarred with his tacky billiard ball ring – and had thereafter thought of him as ‘The guy behind the 8-ball’.
‘The defendant experienced a spontaneous and unprecedented moment of rage,’ Michael had said, ‘when he came home and found his partner had cut his designer shirts into tiny little pieces. One of the shirts was a Louis Vuitton worth £450.’
The guy behind the 8-ball had expressed his rage by setting fire to his partner’s dog. Silver Fox didn’t argue hard on this occasion. Like most people, animal cruelty upset him more than violence against women and he did not consider appealing against the eighteen-month custodial. It was a memorable case for Ruth, watching Silver Fox in action for the first time, but also because of the threats the guy behind the 8-ball hurled at Ruth from the cells below her afterwards: ‘I’ll get you for this, bitch’; ‘I know where you live’; ‘You’d better watch out’. Ruth decided to ignore the muffled noise, confident that the guards would quieten him, and continued the session.
Shortly after this first encounter with Silver Fox, Ruth was surprised to see him singing in the East Kilbride Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s performance of the Pirates of Penzance. She had to admit he was the very model of a modern major gen-eral. He was exceptionally charismatic, and never more so than today, it seemed. Ruth would never smile in court, but she found this difficult as he spoke about the last defendant of the session, a short and painfully thin twenty-one-year-old man called Barry Andrew Malone, who had somehow man-aged to find a suit three sizes too small.
‘Mr Malone suffers from Oppositional Defiant Disorder, My Lady.’ MacDonald gestured towards the glaikit defen-dant, whose grey suit sleeves ended three inches before his yellowing shirt and who looked like he wanted to punch everyone in the room. ‘This is a recognised condition which means he finds it difficult to comply with requests and is often argumentative. In layman’s terms, My Lady, Mr Malone has been diagnosed as clinically naughty. On the afternoon in question he was suffering quite badly from naughtiness and did not wish to wait in the queue at Greggs the Bakers on Queen Street. My Lady, the defendant was in dire need of a cheese and onion pasty at the time of the alleged incident. It was 3 p.m., M’Lady, and he’d had no breakfast and no lunch. The alleged victim confronted him, saying . . .’ MacDonald pushed a flop of silver hair away from his face as he leant down to read the transcript: ‘Wait ya turn, ya knob.’ Head and hair upright again, MacDonald continued. ‘My Lady, at this point, I’m afraid the psychological disorder reared its ugly head, which as I’ve explained is outwith my client’s control and My Lady, this is why Mr Malone used his elbow to shove the alleged victim, a Ms Ellen Dalkeith, who was first in the queue at Greggs on the afternoon in question and hoping to purchase two strawberry tarts.’
Ruth bit her lip to suppress a smile and spoke flatly and without looking up. ‘He’s pleading not guilty?’
‘Yes, My Lady.’
As requested by Sheriff Ruth Oliphant, the defendant stood, revealing suit trousers that bulged painfully at the groin and ground his teeth as trial dates were announced by the clerk of court. Ruth gathered her papers as everyone stood and lowered their heads. She exited via the back door, and giggled all the way to her chambers.
There were two messages from her husband on her mobile. 1: Ruth, call me as soon as you can. 2: Ruth, my darling, I’m in the car park across the road and I’ll still be here when you’re done. Come as soon as you get this. I need to talk to you. It’s urgent. I love you.