by Andrea Smith
  • 24 Aug - 30 Aug, 2019
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

'Court rise.'

Judge George Witnesham entered the court. Shrouded in red and topped with a slightly tatty wig. For senior, read old. Cadaver-like. But no less sharp for that. Not one of the dodderers the media like to tell you run our justice system. Of course, I'm part of that media conspiracy. Journalist, boy and man, as my first editor would have said. But strictly local news. None of your sensationalist muck-raking for the tabloids. Sitting on the press bench, notebook in hand, shorthand at 120 words per minute. Twenty-odd years of cases, from the leader of the council being done for dangerous driving to terrible stories of family violence. But rarely a murder. And never a defendant I actually knew.

I say knew. Used to know, really. Peter Edwards lived in the same village as me when I was a kid. We lived on what was known as the new estate - one-and-a-half roads, built a few years before I was born. And Mr. Shelley lived there too.

We all knew Mr. Shelley. To us he seemed ancient – but actually he was little older than I am now. He was one of those men adults were uneasy about. If I was walking past his bungalow with mum, she'd pull me close, away from his line of vision. He always seemed to be looking out of his window. And we were all warned to 'leave Mr. Shelley alone' or 'don't go bothering him'.

And then one day there were police outside his home. Activity as people went in and out. I must have realised what had happened the next day. Mum always read the local paper, and there on the front page was a photo of Mr. Shelley. And though I can't remember the exact headline, I know it included the word murder.

The courtroom's neither old and imposing nor new and stylish. Typical 1960s functional architecture. It lacks the old fashioned grandeur of the 19th century courthouse in the next big town. Peter Edwards was a little older than me - three years maybe. He was skinny, scruffy, quiet. Neither of us were ever quite part of the gang. We were both on the periphery. I was a bit young. He was a bit, well, odd. He never joked with the other boys. I can't ever remember seeing him laugh.

Seeing him in court was a bit of a shock. Were there really just a few years between us? His face was turned down, looking at the floor, almost hiding from the rest of the room. But I could see enough. He was gaunt, grey, wrinkled.

That summer of 1981, I suppose it is - more than thirty years. But there's an unreality about it. Like a story. I can remember colours more than specifics. Yellow – the sun, the cornfield at the back of our house. The crunch of the stubble under foot after harvest. Purple – the lavender in our front garden. That beautiful fresh aroma – not like my grandma's 'toilet water'. Red – the bricks of our little bungalows. Fresh strawberries picked from our garden, the juice dribbling down my chin.

And feelings. That sense of being happy – carefree – that long summer holidays bring. It's probably only a dream of what it was like: it was probably mostly grey and wet and smelt of the local chicken farm. But in my head that summer before we moved into the town was yellow and purple and red and supremely happy. We used to play football in the road. Well, the bigger boys did. I tended to run up and down and try not to get in the way.

Peter and I were both only children, so we'd often end up playing together. I suppose we'd been quite close, really. But when you're that age and you move away, you make new friends, and forget the old.

'My lord. The background to this case is this. On September the first, 1981, the body of Mr William Shelley was found at his home address in Buttercup Way, Tingwell. He had suffered a single stab wound to the stomach.'

The prosecution laid out the detail for Judge Witnesham – no jury. This was the sentencing – these days a guilty man's rarely sentenced immediately after conviction. A fistful of reports have to be prepared to help the judge understand the sort of man he's dealing with Until Peter's arrest I hadn't thought about Mr. Shelley for years. We'd noticed he hadn't been at his window for a couple of days – but it was the milkman who raised the alarm. When, on the third morning, he was delivering Mr. Shelley's gold top and the previous two pints were still by the front door, he peeked in the window. And as he couldn't see anything, he went round the back. The door wasn't locked. The smell must have hit him first.

Back in the early 1980s there was no such thing as DNA evidence. Even so, everything from the crime scene was safely filed away by the police, in case it was of use at a later date. Then, a year or so ago, a cold case team was assigned to Mr. Shelley's murder, and found signs of urine on his clothes – not his. They put the DNA details into the national database – and up popped Peter Edwards.

His list of antecedents went on for pages, right back to when he was a minor. Shop lifting, bit of burglary; nothing violent, though. But his DNA was on the system and it proved he was at the scene. And he did nothing to deny it.

When they arrested Peter, he'd seemed unsurprised, but didn't admit to the killing immediately. He'd stayed silent, eyes fixed on the floor; just as he was now in the dock. Finally, his solicitor had a word with him in private. The police then returned and questioning resumed.

“Did you do it?”

Peter gave a slight nod of the head without raising his eyes, like a naughty child. They took that as a confession.

As for motive, the prosecution said Peter had intended robbing Mr. Shelley and when he didn't have anything worth taking, my childhood friend had stabbed the man and urinated on the body.

But I really couldn't imagine Peter doing that. Seeing him in court, he barely looked strong enough to pick up a knife – let alone wield it against another human being. And as a boy?

We had been close. When the big boys went off for a cycle ride, out of our village, Peter stayed behind with me. We played football in his back garden. His dad must have been at work – not sure about his mum. Sitting in court I realised we were probably in Peter's garden the day it happened. In fact, as I sat there listening to the evidence, I started to wonder if I was his alibi. I mean, he'd confessed.

Thinking back to what must have been the day, I could remember him trying to teach me to score a goal. And then finally I really did manage to give it a good kick - and it went sailing over the hedge into the garden next door. Mr. Shelley's.

“My lord. The defendant does not deny his responsibility for Mr. Shelley's death. But we would like to put forward a number of mitigating circumstances for what happened. In particular, Mr. Shelley's attraction to young boys and his inappropriate behaviour towards them.”

Peter's barrister was speaking. Mr Shelley had a habit of being rather too friendly with some of the boys. It seems one or two told their parents and while Mr. Shelley was never charged with anything, the police had dropped in to give him some 'advice'. The defence barrister explained that Peter had been a victim of Mr. Shelley's unwanted attention.

“Look what you've done!” Peter was slumped on the ground, head in hands. “Now I've got to go round there and get it.”

“That's okay - I'll go,” I called, as I ran past Peter and out of the gate.

I rang Mr Shelley's doorbell and explained that our football had gone over the hedge. I'd thought he'd be angry. He had gone all white and wobbly at the prospect of going round.

“That's okay, come in. Would you like a glass of Vimto…”

In the middle was a smallish table and on it, a wooden board with meat and large carving knife. He was looking at me. His eyes. They weren't nice.

“No, thank you. I'd just like to get our ball back, please.” I made for the back door, but he stopped me.

“You are a nice, polite little boy, aren't you? But there's no hurry.”

He tried to lead me back into that dark hall. I tried again to get to the door, but somehow he got both my arms behind my back. This wasn't like being punished by dad when I'd been naughty. This was weird.

“No!” I had to stop him. Had to. I kicked. I bit. I squirmed and wriggled and fought. And then I was free.

But I knew it wouldn't last. I grabbed the knife.

“No, no, NO.”

And then he was on the floor. There was blood on the knife. On the floor. All over Mr. Shelley. I looked at him lying there. And then he sighed. Long and deep and final.

Peter was at the door. And I was shouting. Screaming. When had I started screaming? It had seemed like everything had happened in silence, but the noise must have brought Peter running.

He was beside me. He was shaking. His face was a colour I'd never seen before. Sort of grey. His mouth hung open, just like the man on the floor. He looked and looked and looked. His face seemed as big a mystery to me as Mr. Shelley's.

My senses were coming back to me. It smelt like a butcher's shop, but with an added acridness that was coming from Peter. A trickle of wetness had made its way down his leg and had formed a golden puddle at his feet. We stood there, silent now. Finally, he spoke, quiet and slow.

“Give me the knife.”

He took it and wiped it thoroughly with a mauve tea towel, then dropped it onto the floor. I looked down. Red and yellow and purple.

And then he led me back to his house.

That night mum asked me why I was wearing Peter's clothes. I said I'd got messy. I don't think she questioned anything else. She and dad were busy packing for the house move. They had other things to think about.

All this filled my head as the judge passed sentence. I didn't hear a word. I just stared at Peter. He'd come to my aid then and he was doing it again. As the judge finished, I found myself standing. I wanted to say something. I wanted to shout: “It wasn't him! It was me!”

But I just looked at Peter. Helpless. Again.

And he knew. For just a second he looked straight at me and smiled. It was weak and sad but it was definitely a smile. Just for me. That childhood bond, that fraternity – it was still there. He was my big brother. Looking out for me. Putting me first.

And then they led him away.