September 13, 2013 6:37 pm

My conscience is guilty no longer

‘If something is true once, it is a madness to assume it will always be true or that it is true for everyone or everywhere’

Having watched too many lunchtime TV court dramas as a child (“Susie has not been at school this week because she had a slight cold”), I am very aware of the power of inconsistencies. Inconsistencies of testimony are meat and drink to detectives, police officers, lawyers, juries, skiving schoolgirls.

In 1970s courtroom dramas, if you lied about just one thing, before you could so much as say, “m’lud,” the veracity of your evidence was called into question. And my feeling is, in the fictional courtroom, things haven’t much changed. In Legally Blonde (stage and screen), the defendant’s case falls to pieces when it transpires that no woman would ever wash her hair shortly after having a perm, and so the rest of the defendant’s testimony must be a tissue of flimflam too.

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Susie Boyt

A six-year-old I know tells a “joke” in which a housekeeper claims not to have been guilty of murder because she was “sweeping the corners” of the house where she works – yet it transpires that the house is resolutely round. It has no corners. She must be guilty as hell!

And yet people make mistakes about small things all the time: they exaggerate, they forget, they misuse idioms (“Your personality ceases to amaze me!”; “That party was a damp squid!”) – but getting small things wrong does not necessarily mean that the big things are also untrue. There are dusty corners in round rooms, surely? This doesn’t turn people into murderers.

Similarly, if something is true once, it is a madness to assume it will always be true or, indeed, that it is true for everyone or everywhere. In Dublin one summer, a fellow told me he was going to live in England “in the morning”. I asked him if he was all ready, and if he shouldn’t be getting home to get organised, and if he needed help with packing up his room, and he fixed me with a long look. He said, “In the morning,” again, making a gesture that puzzled me until I realised he meant “one day, sometime in the future, this year, next year, never, or mañana”.

A year later I used this expression myself in Ireland and was met with baffled stares. It turns out there is no such expression. “Why did you hear one phrase and think it was rolled out across our entire nation?” they frowned. Why indeed?

. . .

And why am I telling you this? Because two weeks ago something small and wrong did happen, which was definitive. It was a little thing that said a big thing, a mistake that proved other things must also be mistakes, just like Crown Court taught me, and it was wonderful.

We were staying with friends in Italy. The trip had been as delightful as a trip could be for a home-bird like me, and we were collecting ourselves for a dawn departure the following day. Our last excursion would be of the sort I suspect only English people make, which was a drive to a walk. Only, when we made to set off for the setting-off place, the car wouldn’t go.

Our hosts apologised profusely. How would they get us to the station at dawn? Would we walk the three miles down steep stony paths with our cases and find rooms for the night near the station? Could we jump-start the car and roll down the hill, fingers crossed?

These were not the things that concerned me. Experience has taught that you always get home in the end. No, a horrible familiar feeling came over me. Somehow, I just knew, this was all my fault. I could not have felt more responsible for the car breaking down than if I’d put pins in the tyres and pancake batter in the engine. But why?

I had not touched the car all week. I had not driven it. I can’t even drive, for I sent off for my provisional licence when I was 17 and it never came back, so I thought, “Well, if that’s your attitude ... ”

Yet the feeling of guilt grew lively and strong. “It’s not my fault,” I told myself. “Is this my fault?” I asked my husband. He shook his head. “This is my fault,” I told my daughter. She rolled her eyes. It seemed unanimous.

And then I had a wild thought: “What if all the other things I always think are my fault aren’t my fault either? When people argue under my roof? That one friend has a cruel mother and another has a bad leg and I have neither of these things? When I watched Les Misérables from the wings and I sneezed and the revolve broke and actors were stranded mid-air and the curtain had to come down for 10 minutes?”

Why do we do it to ourselves? I thought of a pal who accepted a Versace dress from a stepmother she loathed and the next day Gianni Versace was shot. To this day she still feels responsible.

Well, no more. I’m pleading “not guilty”. What’s the worst that could happen?

susie.boyt@ft.com

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