The judge presiding over the courtroom massages his temples. He’s old. Old enough to have seen it all before, so the skin on his face moves easily under his fingertips.
“The plaintiff will present their case,” he says with a nod to me.
I stand, spilling paperwork from the table as I hurry to rise.
“Your honour,” I begin. “The Arctic Monkeys have committed a terrible crime. Not a crime against a particular individual, but a crime against the English language itself.”
A murmur sweeps through the media gathered in the booths, and the judge ignores it.
“Be more specific, Mr Furneaux.”
“In their 2009 album, Humbug, they display a complete disregard for how lyrics are usually constructed. What they do with words, your honour, is practically witchcraft.”
A few gasps resound behind me, and the judge is forced to give a long, hard glare at the booths until they hush.
“Witchcraft is a serious accusation,” the judge reminds me with a wagging finger. “I recall a much younger barrister once approached me with the same accusation against Florence and the Machine.”
I wave his concerns away. “Back then I was young and foolhardy. This time I have the proof.”
“Bring forward the first witness,” the judge says with a sigh. “This trial is happening in your imagination, so we might as well skip to the interesting bit.”
Alex Turner, the lead singer, sits at the defendant’s table with one leg propped up on the chair beside him. He’s elected to represent himself.
In my mind, he’s wearing large headphones connected to a tape recorder, and his brown curly hair falls down to his shoulders.
“I call forward Crying Lightning to testify.”
Crying Lightning is a lady who looks somehow familiar. From the booths with the media, you watch her ascend the podium, but it’s only when she reaches the chorus that you realise you’ve seen her at shopping malls and parties from your youth.
She’s dressed in conservative black as she swears on the Bible. Her eyes are twice as large as they should be. She has a gaze like medusa.
“Crying Lightning, could you give us an example of the witchcraft that Alex Turner performed on you?”
She opens her mouth, but instead of words you hear a simple tune, with a hypnotic use of stress.
Outside the cafe by the cracker factory
You were practicing a magic trick
The courtroom’s eyes lull for a moment under the opening stanza. The word stress is somehow perfect, like a metronome of syllables.
“What other imagery did they use on you?” I ask.
Crying Lightning shrugs, and from the folds of her jacket falls other descriptions.
…On the last of your pick-and-mix
Said, “You’re mistaken if you’re thinking
That I haven’t been called cold before”
As you bit into your strawberry lace
And then offered me your attention in the form of a gobstopper
“Yes, I can see all of the sweets imagery there,” the judge says with a frown.
“But look closer, your honour,” I say. “Your attention in the form of a gobstopper? How on earth are we supposed to make sense of that? Is her attention a gobstopper, in the sense that he loses his ability to speak? Is it a gobstopper in the sense that it is layered and takes weeks to digest?”
“It is a strange appropriation of the word,” the judge agrees. “Almost as strange as using this courtroom as your framing device for a literary analysis.”
“Can you tell us your chorus next?” I ask Crying Lightning.
Your pastimes consisted of the strange
And twisted and deranged
And I love that little game you had called
And how you’d like to aggravate the ice-cream man
On rainy afternoons
At this point the judge is absently tapping his gavel in time with the chorus.
“Oh I recognise the song now,” the judge says. “Catchy.”
“Look at that term: crying lightning. You could break your head against a brick wall with that one.”
“Do you suppose it has something to do with crying while wearing mascara?” the judge proposes.
“That seems likely,” I agree. “But the imagery sticks in your brain doesn’t it? A real humdinger. Good tune as well. The build from verse to chorus means you can listen to it on repeat easily.”
“It’s a convincing argument,” says the judge. “Alex Turner is certainly clever, but is he truly using the English language as witchcraft? Difficult to say.”
“I’d like to call my witness now,” Alex Turner says, pointing a finger over his shoulder at the door.
“Go on,” the judge says.
“I’d like to call Cornerstone to the witness stand,” says Alex.
Cornerstone is a lady in a comfortable sweater. She’s short and athletic and wearing some powerful perfume. She’s someone you’d want to sit next to you while commuting, because she’s familiar and yet exciting.
“Look at this opening verse,” Alex Turner says. “Simple storytelling. No tricky business here.”
I thought I saw you in the Battleship
But it was only a look-a-like
She was nothing but a vision trick
Under the warning light
She was close, close enough to be your ghost
But my chances turned to toast
When I asked her if I could call her your name
“Objection,” I said. “There’s plenty of strange happenings in that first verse.”
Alex Turner doesn’t agree, and he offers to break it down. “The Battleship can be used as rhyming slang for a pub or bar.”
“What about that line: a vision trick?” I ask. “You made that up.” I turn to the judge. “He could’ve said mirage, or optical illusion, or figment of imagination, or apparition, but he said vision trick to rhyme with Battleship.”
The judge rubs his eyes and looks closely at Cornerstone. “My chances turned to toast?”
Alex Turner is suddenly looking less confident in his own innocence. “I ask that the witness be treated as hostile.”
The judge smiles. “Is your witness not cooperating?”
“Maybe you are a wizard?” I offer, but Mr Turner shakes his head.
“Look at the economy of language here,” the judge interjects. “I asked her if I could call her your name. You don’t even need to know the name of the missing lady when it’s written like that.”
“Let’s look at the chorus,” Mr Turner suggests.
He gestures to Cornerstone, who happily obliges the court.
And I elongated my lift home
Yeah, I let him go the long way round
I smelt your scent on the seatbelt
And kept my shortcuts to myself
At this point, Mr Turner is looking pale under the gills. “Did I really do that with the chorus?” he wonders aloud.
“Elongated?” I ask. It sits with me for a long time. “Elongated my lift home.”
There’s something preternatural about the choice of that word, which irritates my brain like a loose toothpick.
The judge has latched onto another phrase: and kept my shortcuts to myself. “How did you write that?” he asks Mr Turner. “How did you write a phrase like that? It’s like you’ve performed a heart transplant on an idiom. I mean, I understand exactly what it means, but now I can’t think about any other way of saying it.”
Mr Turner’s grin is fixed in place as he stares at Cornerstone. She smiles demurely back at him, but he isn’t comforted.
“No further questions, your honour,” he says quickly, returning to his chair.